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Ang Lee: A Recipe for Success

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Ang Lee captured the Best Director Oscar at the Academy Awards 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, which also triumphed under the categories of Best Original Score and Adapted Screenplay. Previously, the film scored a number of significant wins, including the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival and the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Drama and Best Director. For director Ang Lee, the film represents the latest success in a career studded with such achievements, with many of his works having won accolades at festivals and awards ceremonies around the world.

Lee is undoubtedly the most successful Asian director working in Hollywood today, and one of the few to be equally successful on both sides of the Pacific. Lee has never compromised his vision or the cultural identity of his work to suit Western audiences, and has never fallen into making empty popcorn fodder or vapid slices of cultural tourism as other Asian directors unfortunately have. Although he has directed a diverse set of films, set in different times, countries, and in different languages, they are all essentially character pieces, sharing many of the same universal themes, dealing with strained family ties, personal conflicts, repression and the generational clash between modernity and tradition.

Lee was born in 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan, and graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975, after which he came to the U.S. to study Theatre Direction at the University of Illinois. Following this, he traveled to New York University to study for a Masters Degree in Film Production, during which time he won awards for his short films Dim Lake in 1983 and Fine Line in 1984. Most significantly, he gained his first experience of working on a feature film, when in 1983, he worked with future star-director Spike Lee on his Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.

Although this led to his finding representation with the influential William Morris Agency, the next few years were not particularly fruitful for Lee, as he tried and failed to get several film projects off the ground. The upside to this was that he stayed at home looking after his two sons while his wife worked, giving him the chance to hone his culinary skills. Lee subsequently became a skilled cook of Chinese food, an experience that he would draw on in his future films. Eventually, in 1990, he got his break, when his screenplays for Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet won first and second place in a Taiwanese national competition.

The two were subsequently made into films in 1992 and 1993 respectively, directed by Lee himself. They formed the first parts of what he referred to as his "father knows best" trilogy, which he completed in 1994, with Eat Drink Man Woman. The three films examined the generational differences between modern young Chinese people and their more traditional parents, using food as a metaphor. Each film showed a different take on the subject, with Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet being set in America, the latter controversially featuring a gay man who marries a Chinese immigrant in order to satisfy his aging parents. Eat Drink Man Woman saw Lee returning to Taiwan, and exploring the changing face of society, primarily through the differing methods of cooking used by a father and his daughters.

Interestingly, the three films are linked not only thematically, but also by the fact that they all star Lung Sihung as the father figure. The actor would later work with the director again in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though dealing with serious issues and displaying genuine insight, the films all have a light-hearted touch, which shows a mixture of realistic modern social cinema and the spontaneity of old fashioned Hollywood farce, making them both entertaining and thoughtful. The three were well received by critics internationally, with The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman winning various awards, including Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen may have seemed an odd choice for Lee's 1995 Hollywood debut, but he delved skillfully into the heart of the much-loved literary classic and emerged with something relevant and contemporary. Lee focused on themes similar to those in his previous films, namely the rituals and restrictions of society, and relationships plagued by miscommunication and the interference of parents. The film proved a great success, picking up a Best Screenplay Oscar and garnering directorial accolades from several bodies, including the Director's Guild of America and the New York Film Critics Circle.

It was followed in 1997 by The Ice Storm, another literary adaptation, which saw Lee working with an all star Hollywood cast, including Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and upcoming young actors Elijah Wood and Tobey Maguire. The film, shot through with an air of quiet desperation, focused on the deterioration of an American family in the face of changing sexual morals and the empty decadence of the middle class. Scathing and tragic, and far removed from the usual maudlin sentimentality of Hollywood cinema, it won widespread praise, more awards, and firmly established Lee as a filmmaker of intelligence and significance. Its success allowed him to stretch his wings a little in 1999, with Ride with the Devil, an American civil war drama that saw the director tackling big budget action scenes for the first time, alongside the usual angst and complex emotional plotting. Although interesting and handsomely crafted, the film was a commercial failure, despite being mostly well received by critics.

Lee's next film, and the one which brought him to the attention of mainstream viewers worldwide was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, which he envisaged as a tribute to the films he had adored while growing up. The film is a visually stunning blend of fantastical martial arts and historical melodrama, boasting a stunning line up of Asian talent, including Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei Pei, whose 1960s work in Shaw Brothers' films earned her the nickname "The Queen of Swords". The film also acted as the breakthrough for young Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, who has since become the most famous Asian actress working in film today.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be a genuine box office sensation, both domestically and internationally, even in the U.S., a market notoriously resistant to subtitled films. The critics were equally enraptured, and awards arrived in incredible numbers, with a staggering 70 wins from 84 nominations around the world, most significantly at the 2000 Academy Awards, where it collected four statuettes, including Best Foreign Language Film.

After taking time out in 2001 to co-write the screenplay for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American film that covered similar ground to his own earlier films, and direct a BMW commercial, The Hire: Chosen, Lee returned in 2003 with his most high-profile and controversial film yet, Hulk. What should have been a straightforward comic-book adaptation became something quite different in Lee's hands, as he explored the darker recesses of protagonist Bruce Banner's mind. The psychological effects of his uncontrollable rage, and his dysfunctional relationship with this crazed father produced an evocative and thoughtful film that confused critics and audiences alike. Although filled with special effects and skillfully made, audiences were expecting another Spiderman, and so despite a massive marketing push, the film flopped.

Undeterred, Lee dispelled any notions that he had lost his touch and returned to form with Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. The film covers familiar ground for the director, dealing with a forbidden love, in this case between two sheep herders (played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) in 1960s Wyoming. The film has predictably stirred up controversy, especially in the USA, for its challenging of macho heterosexual stereotypes. Although referred to as "the gay cowboy film", Brokeback Mountain is a tender and tragic love story that transcends borders and, like all of the director's films, tackles essentially human themes viewers the world over can relate to. Beautifully directed, with an almost lyrical feel, Brokeback Mountain is destined to remain one of the most important and influential films of Lee's career.

This success leaves Lee with a free hand to choose his next project, which he has yet to announce. Although rumours continue to circle of a prequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he has stated that such a film would be dependent on the cast and on finding a worthy script. Whatever he chooses, in whichever country or language, viewers can be certain that it will deal with emotional turmoil, heartache and characters struggling to find their place in the world. In other words, an Ang Lee film.

Published March 3, 2006

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