Ang Lee’s reaction to the surprise and admiration that followed his making of Sense and Sensibility is a perfect reflection of the essential quality of his career as a director subsequent to that film. His first three movies, Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman – often dubbed the “Father Knows Best Trilogy” – were, in his words, about the struggle between social obligation and the exercise of free will. Many people were stunned that Lee was asked to make Sense and Sensibility, a film which depicted a world that, for all appearances could not have been further away from the one explored in the “Trilogy.” Perhaps even more astonishing was Lee’s successful collaboration with screenwriter/leading actress Emma Thompson in creating an entertaining, thoroughly British period piece.
But Lee brushed off the awe surrounding his involvement with Sense and Sensibility, arguing that he felt “very at home” making the film because the theme was consistent with that of the Trilogy. He said that when people approached him to tell him that they loved the movie, “I just wanted to punch them, I was so irritated.” He realized after making Sense and Sensibility, in “which I am doing the same vibe, three in Chinese, one in English,” that he needed to change his approach to filmmaking. “I could not pigeonhole myself to a certain vibe, a certain type of filmmaking and a certain way of communicating myself to the audience.” Lee became a risk-taker, an innovator. “Then I really started this journey of keeping deconstructing what I just did and trying to find new things so I can feel I’m alive, I’m fresh. Now I’m facing new challenges. So every movie has to have some kind of impossible elements in it – or elements that are impossible to put together.”
Ang Lee’s next film, The Ice Storm, marks the beginning of his new approach to making movies: on the one hand breaking new ground – “… each time I want to make a leap as far away from the previous one or what I know of because then I can pretend I do that for the first time, like a virgin” – on the other hand mitigating the fear that risk-taking elicits by falling back on what he calls “coherence,” which for Lee means constantly revisiting the “subject matter of freedom, repression social obligation – the struggle of social obligation and personal free will.”
In a number of interviews in which he was asked about the genesis of many of his films, Lee talks about being haunted by a story, or even an image, usually from a book. For The Ice Storm, it was page 200 of Rick Moody’s novel, on which the young character, played by Elijah Wood in the film, slides gleefully down an icy street to his death by electrocution. For Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was the last paragraph of the last page in the fourth volume of a “pulpy” wuxia fiction series introduced to him by a friend in Taiwan. He was haunted by Annie Proulx’s short story in the collection Wyoming Stories, “Brokeback Mountain” and by Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi.
Perhaps there is coincidence in the fact that most of these “haunting” stories were extremely difficult to make into films, only partially because of the vast cultural distance between the subject matter of the work and a director who identifies himself as a thoroughly Chinese filmmaker (“I was brought up in certain ways that influence my work…. I lived in a Chinese environment until I was 23 and that is something I cannot change”). However, one can also easily imagine that a significant element of the haunting experience was the challenge that such stories presented to this director, one of whose guiding artistic principles is “If a topic isn’t terrifying enough, or sensitive enough, I won’t want to make the movie.”
Although I had seen, and admired, The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, and The Ice Storm, I was not conscious of Ang Lee’s unique combination of courage and skill as a director until I saw Brokeback Mountain in 2006. How was it possible that a Chinese filmmaker, raised and educated in the traditional conservative culture of Nationalist Taiwan (his parents migrated from Mainland China, along with Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Chinese army, before the Communist takeover of the Mainland in 1949) could so realistically, so completely, and so movingly evoke the pain experienced by two repressed gay men in the cowboy culture of 1960s rural Wyoming? One could only consider the remoteness of the possibility of Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman successfully capturing both authentic tone and cultural nuances if either were to attempt to make a film like Eat, Drink, Man, Woman to be able to imagine the enormity of Lee’s accomplishment.
Lee’s philosophy of filmmaking is the antithesis of the Hollywood approach. “I have a lot of curiosity; I feel my career is like a prolonged film school. I just love to learn how to make movies. How do you … do that combat scene? How do you put boys with guns on horseback? How do [you make characters] fly … putting a wire on people, just yank them this way and slash them that way? For different genres I get to learn movies from all those great filmmakers like Hong Kong action choreographer[s] – that’s some of the greatest filmmakers. Here [i.e., in Hollywood] they’re … they made sure you’re doing safely.”
In an interview with Charlie Rose following the release of The Ice Storm, Lee’s long-time producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, explained that many non-American directors, beginning with Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder in the 1930s and more recently including John Woo and Wolfgang Petersen, have been sucked into the Hollywood filmmaking machine, making commercial films just like those of many of their American counterparts. “What makes Ang so special is that they haven’t gotten to him yet on that level; he’s gotten to them. I think Ang’s come into the States and he’s really maintained – probably through his position as an independent filmmaker here in New York – a real respectful and respectable distance from that machine, and I think that’s what makes his films so different.”
In Part Two and in subsequent parts, we will look at some of the films of Ang Lee, beginning with The Ice Storm, in order to trace this journey of seeking to satisfy curiosity and of taking risks.
“LIFE OF PI, Ang Lee, 35th Mill Valley Film Festival” by Diginmag. Creative Commons Fickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)