Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, the two films that earned Ang Lee his Best Director Academy Awards, couldn’t be more different. One unravels a tender queer romance in a world of cowboys traditionally associated with heterosexual masculinity; the other an allegorical, existential, fantastical journey shared by an Indian boy and a tiger. And yet, at the heart of both sits a probing of the status quo; the breaking of taboos and the rallying against restraining confines.
In tandem, they not only demonstrate the Taiwanese filmmaker’s diversity of material, but also his desire to master multiple styles and genres. Flitting from family dramas and Jane Austen adaptations to comic book flicks and martial arts epics, his resume includes The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As the latter’s star Michelle Yeoh explains, “For him, to know as much as possible is his weapon.”
This week the VICE Guide To Film explores the career of the most prominent Asian filmmaker working in Hollywood today:
The Lee essentials
When Lee showed enthusiasm for film as a child, his high school principal father was reportedly disappointed. Later, when the director considered retiring from his career after the tepid response to Hulk, his father convinced him to keep going. It’s little wonder that examining the lines between tradition and modernity proves integral to Lee’s work — as does contemplating the intricacies of relationships. His first three features, Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, are all about family dynamics. The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also peer into intimate bonds, as do Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution and Life of Pi. And part of the fallout surrounding his take on Bruce Banner stemmed from the fact that it wasn’t just a comic book adaptation, it was a tragic tale about a father and son.
Moving to America from his native Taiwan in 1979, Lee originally arrived interested in acting rather than directing. When his focus changed, he enrolled in a film degree. It would take Lee more than a decade to make his first feature, including years spent writing scripts while his wife supported their family, but it would take him only three more years to progress from Taiwanese dramas to Hollywood. When he was recruited to direct Sense and Sensibility due to the skill with social satire he had displayed in his trio of initial movies, he was unfamiliar with Austen’s work.
From there, Lee has marched forward. Bigger things would come, but he has never followed a predictable path. Acclaim arrived — Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Lee himself winning Best Director for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi — but so did a willingness to experiment. That trio of applauded efforts all take risks with style, subject matter and technology, and wouldn’t have come to fruition in anyone else’s hands. Littered among the hits, his lesser-known and under-appreciated works all took Lee to different places, whether delving into the Civil War with Ride with the Devil, stepping back to the '60s in Taking Woodstock or pondering military life today in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Two things you mightn’t know
- Lee scored his first film credit with Spike Lee’s student effort Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The two were classmates at NYU.
- His son Mason featured in Lee’s The Wedding Banquet as a baby and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as an adult — as well as The Hangover II, Lucy and this year’s Taiwanese hit Who Killed Cock Robin?
Five films you really need to see
Eat Drink Man Woman: A feast of a film that’s as satisfying as the beautifully lensed dishes that fill its frames, Lee’s third feature follows a widower chef, his three unmarried daughters and their clash of perspectives.
The Ice Storm: Based on the book of the same name, Lee’s suburban drama dives deep into dysfunctional family life against a '70s backdrop, with superb performances from a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood and Christina Ricci.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A worthy cinematic sensation upon its release, Lee’s applauded film combines stunning sights, stirring emotions and frenetic choreography. “I would like to make Sense and Sensibility, but with martial arts,” he told star Michelle Yeoh.
Brokeback Mountain: Swelling with feeling and sensitivity from start to finish, the vagaries of love — particularly of the queer and clandestine kind — have rarely been as intimate and heartwrenching as in Lee and actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s hands.
Life of Pi: When Lee took on a book widely regarded as “unfilmable”, he pushed the boundaries of technology, and made audiences invest in the boat-bound bond between a boy and a tiger named Richard Parker.
Who’s sharing the Lee love?
Michelle Yeoh: In a pairing of Asian action superstars, Yeoh starred opposite Chow Yun-fat in Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Garrett Hedlund: Alongside Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, Kristen Stewart and Steve Martin, the Mudbound star featured in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Yann Martel: Martel’s Man-Booker prize-winning novel Life of Pi was adapted by Lee. The author appears in the film briefly as an extra.
Elijah Wood: Though Wood had been acting for nearly a decade when he starred in Lee’s The Ice Storm, it ranks among one of The Lord of the Rings star’s early standout parts.
Anthony Chen: The Ilo Ilo filmmaker has been a fan of Lee from an early age. Chen’s debut feature received four Golden Horse awards in 2013, the year that Lee chaired the jury.
What should I watch next?
Lee chats about three of his filmmaking highlights on SBS On Demand:
Stream The Vice Guide to Film now at SBS On Demand.