Tuesday, June 24

The Directors: Ang Lee

As of this writing, he has only made a dozen films but they have enabled him to become one of the most important and respected directors in America and around the globe. Furthermore, no Asian director has ever touched his kind of success on both sides of the Pacific. Most all of his films have picked up honors from film groups worldwide.  Actors want to work with him and if they have worked with him, they want to do it again. The same can be said for writers, producers, cameramen, costumers and most any technician interested in being involved in a film on some grand scale.  His gift to me was directing my favorite film of all time.

Ang Lee was born in 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan.  His father, a high school principal, held education in high esteem, along with Chinese classics.  His father wanted him to be a college professor but while still in his early teens, Lee knew he wanted to be involved in dramatics at some level.  He graduated from Taiwan's National Arts School at 17.  His foray into directing and writing came about largely after seeing Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring

After finishing a stint in the Chinese army, Lee left for the states and enrollment in the University of Illinois where he earned a bachelor's degree in theater.  It is also where he met his future wife, Jane, also a Taiwanese student.  He then attended New York University where he obtained a Master's in film production.

Hollywood discovered him because of a thesis he wrote for NYU but they didn't really know what they had so he has famously said he was a house-husband for six years.  While he tended to his four children, he wrote two screenplays, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, which ultimately became his first two movies.

His native country would not only take notice of these works, but asked him to direct them as well.  Pushing Hands (1992) was a comedy about cultural and generation gaps among a Taiwanese family living in New York.  The following year's The Wedding Banquet dealt with a gay New Yorker who arranged a marriage of convenience to fool his visiting Taiwanese parents.  In 1993, flying on the acclaim from the first two films, Lee made Eat Drink Man Woman, focusing again on generational comedy.  Ultimately the three films became known as the Father Knows Best trilogy; all starred popular Taiwanese actor, Sihung Lung.

Hollywood, now realizing its short-sightedness, called on Lee to direct, of all things, a film version of British author Jane Austen's well-known and highly-regarded Sense and Sensibility (1995).   The story of a mother and three daughters who are left impoverished after the husband's death and the rules of inheritance in 1810 England.  If Lee seemed an odd choice for such a job, one only needs to see the final product to render a decision.  He was hired, it's been said, because of his ability to handle complex family relationships.  He admitted he'd never heard of Jane Austen but said that through making this film, he realized for the first time what he was trying to do thus far in his career... mix social satire with family drama.  He put an outstanding cast through its paces... Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for writing this film), Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Tom Wilkinson, Greg Wise (then about to become Thompson's husband) and a relative newcomer, Kate Winslet. It was because I like British period stuff that got me to this movie... my first experience with Ang Lee.  It would be another seven years before I would see the Father Knows Best trilogy.

Complex family relationships doesn’t quite cut it for what Lee gave us in The Ice Storm (1997).  Some of the folks in this film were waaayyy out there in their dysfunctional lives at most every level.  I always found it hard to watch but given my own longtime love of family-drama movies, The Ice Storm was like a course one takes for extra credits.  The critics liked I but the public mainly stayed away despite a dazzling cast headed by Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen and Tobey Maguire.

Maguire was also in Lee's next film, 1999's Ride with the Devil, this time as the star.  The actor always reminds me of someone who has been given some medicine to keep him calm.  I've never much cared for him and always wince at the notion of him carrying a film.  This so-to-speak calmness was also my problem with the film itself... waaayyyyy toooooo slowwwww.  And just consider.... it's a Civil War tale .  It has the pace of an injured turtle except for the injured scenes themselves which are startlingly graphic and in your face.  I couldn't have been closer to some of those wounds if I'd been attempting to close them.

Next came the lavish and exciting fantasy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  Never in a million years would I have thought I'd go see a Chinese, high-flying martial arts film with--- gag!!!-- subtitles... and I didn't, for about six months after its release.  Oh yes, I'd heard all the blathering about what a superior movie it was... it will blow your mind... smoke a doobie...you won't believe it... it's gonna win so many Oscars... and on and on.  Finally it was a very simple thing that got me there.

A friend squawked... you like beautiful-looking films, I know you do.  Really, Dude, don't miss this one.

But the freaking subtitles, I squealed.

Shut up about the subtitles, he said, don't read... look.

Great advice.  So glad I took it.  One word that has often been used to describe Ang Lee is artistry and it is in full-bloom here.  His visual artistry is beyond compare; I swear he sees things differently than most people do.  It's hard to believe that cinematography  wasn't a former profession.  Lee is also known for his incredible attention to details... again, in evidence here in every single frame of film.

Sometimes it just feels so right to be wrong.  I was completely dazzled with this film... its grace, its majesty, its discipline.  And as is the case with most of Lee's films, I loved the actors he assembled.  I had just recently liked Chow Yun Fat in The Corruptor and Anna and the King and I got to know two first-rate actresses, Michelle Yeow and Ziyi Zhang.  This movie won a planet-full of awards and honors, including Oscar's best foreign language film.

One could say, like many directors, regardless of how acclaimed, that one has peaks and valleys in terms of success, critical or box-office.  Lee had experienced some of each so far and in his next two films he would see his deepest valley and highest peak.  What attracted him to The Hulk (2003) is not something I know or want to know.  I admit I just couldn't go.  Not my thing.  Sorry Ang.  I heard that, as usual, it was beautifully filmed.   But I did hear that he was so disappointed over its huge failure that he considered leaving showbiz.  I'm certainly glad he reconsidered.

At the Venice Film Festival, 2005

Brokeback Mountain was his next film, as if you didn't know.  He has said that if a project wasn't scary and sensitive, it wouldn't much interest him.  Thank goodness he took it on and because of his participation, others who were scared a bit also signed on to make it.  Jake Gyllenhaal had originally declined the project but changed his mind once Lee was signed to steer it.  Lee has always shown a great deal of sensitivity to relationships but he certainly reached his high-water mark here.

It's interesting to note that in riding the crest of a great wave due to BBM, Lee elected to return to his roots and do the oddly-titled Lust, Caution (2007) with a mainly Chinese cast that concerned itself with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1942.  It was a subtitled thriller famous for its beautiful look and numerous scenes depicting rough sex.   It goes on the side of the ledger with The Hulk... I didn't see it.

I did see Taking Woodstock (2009) but I don't think too many did... and that's a shame.  Concerned with the famous Woodstock music festival in 1969, the film is a sweet little mosaic filled with much comedy and some drama.  While it certainly dives into the festival itself, it is more of a personal story about an aspiring interior designer whose parents own some land in upstate New York but are having financial problems which, in turn, leads to the festival.  It doesn't seem like a project that would attract Lee but as usual, how lucky we are that it did.  The film's large cast and multi-storylines reminded me a great deal of Robert Altman's 1975 Nashville

He would win a second Academy Award for directing The Life of Pi (2012), so far the last film Ang Lee has done. I found it an irresistible little allegory that should go down in history as one of the most beautifully-filmed movies of all time... or in other words, Ang Lee at his very best.  Most everyone knows that it is about a teenage boy who survives a disaster at sea by ending up on a small boat with a ferocious tiger.  The tiger section is one of three that make up the story and I regarded it as too long and a little too mystical for my western outlook.  Nonetheless the overall film impressed me with its unusual telling and absolutely stunning beauty.

I hope he hasn't gone back to being a house-husband.  My friend was right... I do like beautiful movies and we would be hard-pressed to find films more gorgeous and imaginative than the ones placed in the hands of Ang Lee... a brilliant filmmaker.

On an actor whose death
I am still not over


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