In this 2003 film, Lee’s first big-budget Hollywood project, the director attempts to add psychological sophistication and philosophical depth to a comic-book story. The result is a critical and commercial disappointment, but Hulk shows once again the director’s penchant for risk-taking and his refusal to engage in formulaic movie-making.
Hulk is the story of a young genetic scientist, Bruce Banner, who unbeknownst to him, is the son of another researcher who conducted unauthorized experiments with disastrous results, landing himself in prison. David Banner also experimented on his son. Bruce is in a relationship with fellow researcher Betty Ross, who complains of his emotional unavailability. Bruce also suffers from nightmares that are clues to his hidden past. A lab accident unleashes a terrible rage that causes Bruce to be transformed into a giant green hulk that wreaks havoc on people and property. Meanwhile David is somehow freed and seeks to take advantage of his son’s genetic mutation, and the military officer responsible for David’s incarceration just happens to be Betty Father and the general in charge of stopping the rampaging Hulk.
In her study of Ang Lee’s work, The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen, critic Whitney Crothers Dilley compares Hulk with the comic-book-turned-action-feature that preceded it: Spiderman:
In some ways it can be argued, however, that the Hulk film is rendered more imaginatively and takes more daring risks. For example, the structure of the plot in Spider-Man is a straightforward hero-versus-nemesis theme, while Hulk explores family drama in several directions: Bruce versus his own father, Bruce’s mother versus his father (in flashback), Betty versus her father, and finally, Betty versus Bruce. In addition, the presentation of the Hulk is unique in its use of comic book conventions from the written page. For example, in the opening of the film, the Green Marvel font of the main titles pays cultural homage to the original comic books. In addition, during certain action sequences Lee splits the screen into multiple comic panels that dramatize the original comic strip format of the Hulk narrative. Moreover, Lee comments that the film has a complex philosophical subtext involving change and transformation embodied by lichen growing on rocks and mutation at a cellular and molecular level; images representing this idea occur throughout the movie.
Ultimately, Ang Lee’s Hulk is about taking risks and attempting to transform the genre of hero-action movies in the same way the director has experimented with the conventions of genre in his past films. In stretching to create a unique vision, the filmmakers worked hard to bring a depth to the film that is surprising in its sophistication.
The critics, and audiences, were not kind to Lee’s effort, however. New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott writes: “[Hulk] might be described … as incredible, but only in a negative sense: incredibly long, incredibly tedious, incredibly turgid. As for the grumpy green giant himself, I’m sorry to say that he is not very credible at all.”
Dilley says, “The thinking man’s action movie about Man’s inner demons did not hold broad appeal. While some critics praised Lee’s daring departure from the conventional treatment of the comic book drama, the film was pummeled by most viewers who criticized the effort to turn Hulk into Hamlet with art-house visual effects.”
The film did end up enjoying moderate success at the box office though: on a budget of $120 million, Hulk brought in $254.4 million in revenue.
For Lee, the making of Hulk was an exhausting and ultimately demoralizing enterprise; he even contemplated no longer making movies, or at least taking a very long rest. But when presented with the challenge of making Brokeback Mountain, Lee could not resist. As he told Charlie Rose, “The material is just as challenging [as that of Hulk], if not more, for obvious reasons, but I like that kind of work. I need to work instead of sitting at home feeling bad for myself. I need something; I need a direction.” For Lee, making Brokeback Mountain was “a healing process.”
When asked in an interview to articulate the essence of his filmmaking, Lee replied, “Repression, the struggle between how you want to behave as a social animal and the desire to be honest with your free will.” The theme of repression looms large indeed in Brokeback Mountain, most particularly in the character Ennis Del Mar; thus the essential coherence of Ang Lee’s films continues. Once again, nevertheless, the director has chosen a cinematic path others dared not or could not take. The screenplay for the movie, based on Annie Proulx’s short story and written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, had been written several years before the movie was actually produced and became known as “the greatest un-producible screenplay ever written.” The material was just too sensitive at the time. Director Gus Van Sant wanted to make the film, but was unable to cast Ennis; his first choice for the role, Matt Damon, reportedly told him, “Gus, I did a gay movie (The Talented Mr. Ripley), then a cowboy movie (All The Pretty Horses). I can’t follow it up with a gay-cowboy movie!”
When Lee first read the story and the script, before he made Hulk, he didn’t think anyone would make it or see it. But as with other projects, the story haunted him, so he decided to make the film despite the obstacles.
The result was an artistic masterpiece and a box-office hit.
Please read my review of this film here.
In 1938, in the early years of the military occupation of China by the Japanese, a young female student at Lingnan University, Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei), is persuaded by a handsome and charismatic fellow student (Kuang Yumin, played by the pop star Wang Leehom) to assume a role in a patriotic play that he and his friends and classmates are producing. The play provokes a passionate response from the audience and Wang is immediately seduced by the thrill of performance. When Kuang suggests that the group move from theatrical activism to the dangerous reality of political assassination, Wang, naïve in her enthusiasm, eagerly pledges her commitment to the plot
The plan is to insinuate the group, but most specifically Wang, into the privileged but secret life of notorious collaborator Mr. Yee, who works for the Japanese occupation forces in Hong Kong, arresting and torturing members of the resistance. Wang is to adopt the role of the wealthy Mai Taitai (Mrs. Mai), becoming a player in games of mah-jong with Yee’s wife and escorting her on shopping trips. The naïve student soon takes to the role of elegant and sophisticated matron, and when she first meets Mr. Yee as she plays mah-jong with his wife and her friends, there is a spark between them. The fantasy soon explodes into brutal reality, however, when a friend of Kuang who has discovered the group’s plans and attempts to blackmail them is murdered by her co-conspirators in a most gruesome fashion before her eyes. Although she continues to play her part in the plot, the conspiracy collapses when Yee is suddenly transferred to Shanghai.
Four years later Wang finds herself in Shanghai attending college and living with an aunt. She is reunited with Kuang, who has been keeping her under surveillance, and he introduces her to Old Woo, who is the head of the resistance in the area. Wang recommits herself to the assassination plan and is soon once again intimately involved with the Yee family. She and Mr. Yee begin a clandestine affair that is at once thrilling and terrifying for Wang. The couple engages in violent and wanton lovemaking (which is somewhat graphically depicted in the film), and their emotional engagement deepens as the affair progresses. As a consequence of his infatuation with Wang, Yee leaves himself vulnerable to the assassination plot, but on the day that the deed is to take place, Wang gives Yee a warning and he escapes. The plotters, including Wang, are caught and summarily executed in a quarry near the city.
Lust, Caution is based on a short story by the beloved Chinese writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing). Again, it is a story that haunted Lee and drove him to engage in yet another risky cinematic enterprise. The anti-Japanese resistance, which strengthened the fledgling Chinese Communist Party by gaining the support of the masses and perfecting the techniques of guerilla warfare that ultimately led Mao Zedong’s forces to victory over the Nationalist army in the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese, is an icon of Chinese patriotism to this day. For Lee to prick this icon through having his heroine betray the cause by falling in love with a collaborator and foiling a plot to bring him to justice risks provoking the ire of the Chinese government, always sensitive, which has exploited anti-Japanese sentiment and the role of the Communist Party in vanquishing the occupiers as a pillar of its popular support for many decades. In fact, in the scene in which Wang says to Yee, “Go now,” thus betraying her cause, the dialogue was changed for Chinese audiences to “Let’s go.” It is difficult to imagine such a suggestion triggering Yee’s sudden flight.
There was risk also involved in including the three scenes of graphic sex. The filmmakers knew that Lust, Caution would be given an NC-17 rating, the most restrictive prohibition handed out by censors, but Lee refused to delete any of the footage (although the scenes were altered for Mainland Chinese audiences) and the rating was applied.
Finally, as with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee faced the challenge of appealing to both Asian and Western audiences with this movie. While there was criticism from both sides (for example, Chinese audiences found it too fast-paced; Western audiences thought it was too slow), the film generally received positive reviews from Western and Chinese critics. Lust, Caution won the 2007 Golden Lion International Venice Film Festival Award and seven Golden Horse awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. On a budget of $15 million, Lust, Caution grossed over $67 million at the box office worldwide and has generated more than $24 million in DVD sales and rentals in the U.S. alone.
“Hulk Poster” Wikipedia. Fair Use
“Brokeback Mountain Poster” Wikipedia. Fair Use
“Lust, Caution Poster” Wikipedia. Fair Use
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- 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)
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Three)