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Ang Lee, the Taiwan-born director and screenwriter, is one of the most import figures in Chinese and Hollywood film. He is known for making a wide variety of film---Chinese-style family dramas, literary classics, war films, martial art ballets and cowboy flicks---with extraordinary skill.

Time film critic Richard Corliss wrote that Lee makes films that both "kick higher and probe deeper...that entertain and enthrall. A cosmopolitan chameleon, Lee seems at home in any culture, while viewing it with an outsider’s ironic acuity."

Ang Lee was selected by Time magazine in 2006 as one if the world’s top 100 shapers and won an MTV lifetime achievement award. Even the Beijing government has heaped him with praise. With the China Daily calling him the “pride of the Chinese people all over the world” and “the glory of Chinese cinematic talent.”

Good Websites and Sources: dGenerate Films dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. The site Chinese Films features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. Ang Lee Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Movie Database ; Internet Movie Database ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; iFilm Connections---Asia and Pacific ; Love Asia Film ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Chen Kaige at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They ; Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, See Separate Article Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California.


Book: Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers by Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara

Ang Lee's Life

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Lee was born on October 23, 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan. The son of a high school principal, he grew up in Taiwan and failed his university entrance exam twice in Taiwan and instead went Taiwan’s National Arts School, where he cultivated an intense interest in film. He attended a college in Illinois. After graduated he moved to New York to study film and worked there with Spike Lee.

Lee lives in Westchester County in New York with his wife Jane and two children. He edits his films in New York.

Ang Lee has been called the "softest-spoken control freak in the film business." He is perfectionist. It is not unusual for him reshoot a single scene more than 25 times. On his work philosophy, Lee said. "On each project I want to stretch myself, to see new possibilities, before people get bored of me and I get bored of myself."

Yeoh said, “He's gentle and very emotional. During a sad scene at the end of the film, he kept telling me to do different thing, and when he'd come over I'd see he was red-eyed, teary. He gets so completely involved. And when he says, 'Good take' after a shot, he really means it."

Ziyi Zhang on Ang Lee: “He creates characters that draw in an audience no matter what language they speak, His insight into the human heart crosses all boundaries. I know he is also making a huge influence in the lives of younger film maker and actors.”

Ang Lee Films

Food Clips from Eat Drink Man Woman
Lee had made a name for himself by investigating modern Chinese culture in the acclaimed Taiwanese film Father Knows Best; and the Chinese family trilogy Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. Lee has said his greatest influences are Bergman, Antonioni, and Billy Wilder.

Ang Lee foreign films include: Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil (1999), a civil war drama with the singer Jewel, Ice Storm, film about American boredom in the 1970s. It was shown at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shot in China.

The Incredible Hulk (2003) was Lee’s first Hollywood film: Newsweek’s David Ansen called it “not your normal popcorn movie.” “Dark, stately, with aspirations to tragic grandeur, The Hulk s a fascinating synthesis: something old, Something new, something,”

Lee directed Sense and Sensibility, the Jane Austen story, with Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson. Despite initial misgiving he decided to the film. "If you see my films, I've been trying to do the same thing all my life,” he said. "It's a mixture of social satire---that the funny part---and warm drama, sincere drama, usually those two don't get along very well."

During the making of Sense and Sensibility, Lee practiced tai chi and urged his actor to meditate and massage each other's pressure points. He was shocked when Grant and Thompson offered suggestions. "He was deeply hurt and confused," Thompson wrote. "It must have been terrifying “new actors, new crew, new country, and then us sticking our oars in."

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger trailer
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Lee and staring Chow Yun Fat, Zhan Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh, is the biggest grossing foreign film and the biggest grossing foreign film in the United States of all time. It cost $15 million to make and earned $128 million in the United States alone, more than double for any previous Asian film. Filmed in many different locations across the China, it achieved this as a subtitled Mandarin-language.

Lee said: “The film is a dream of China’s China that probably never existed.”Based on Wang Du Lu novel from the 1930s, the story revolves around a rebellious you girl (19-year-old Zhang Ziyi) who flees a marriage to become a warrior; the efforts by the girl’s mentor (Michelle Yeoh) to bring her back; the unspoken love between the mentor and a legendary warrior (Chow Yun Fat); and their quest to find the Green Destiny, a sword with magical powers that has been stolen.

The action scenes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, who also put Keuna Reeves through his moves in The Matrix. The first action scene features cloaked figures running up and down walls and effortlessly leaping from one roof top to the next after the sword has been stolen. The scenes look natural and easy. But that was not the case. Yeoh injured her knee and had to fly back to the United States for a month of rehabilitation and was sidelined for three months.

The famous fight scene in the bamboo forest was not shot using computer graphics or a blue screen, it was shot on location with actors whizzing through the air on wires. Lee said, Nobody, including Yuen, wanted to do the tree scene, for the simple reason it's almost impossible. The first three days of shooting were a complete waste. There were 20 or 30 guys below the actors trying to make them float. It was just chaotic." Yuen said, "It was probably the hardest scene I've ever done. The only 'special effect' is when we remove the wire in post production."

Awards and Criticism for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Wedding Banquet trailer
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was widely acclaimed by film critics. Time called it "contemplative and kick ass." Newsweek said it was an "exquisite film." The Los Angeles Times called it a "delightful one-of-a-kind martial arts romance." It received a standing ovation when it opened at the Cannes Film Festival and took eight awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including best film and best director for Lee.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the most ever for a foreign film. The nominations included best director and best picture, the first for an Asian film. It won four Oscars: best foreign film, best art direction, best cinematography and best original music.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bombed at Chinese theaters. Critics and many viewers hated it. One critic claimed it "as unrealistic and exaggerated as a video game." Viewers complained the pace was too slow, the plot was absurd, the Mandarin spoken by the Cantonese-speaking actors was awful and the fight scenes weren't as good as old kung fu movies. One viewer told the Los Angeles Times, "People flew around too much. If you put me on wires, I could fly around too. There was no real martial arts skill." The film did spawn a whole series of copy cat films like Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger and Roaring Dragon, Bluffing Tiger .

Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee again drew won accolades and awards with Brokeback Mountain, a film about two cowboys who fall in love and how their relationship unfolds over a 20 year period. It is set in Wyoming beginning in the 1960s as was shot in Alberta on a spartan budget of $14 million. Even though the film is about a gay relationship the actors who played the role are straight, or so they say,

Brokeback Mountain was favored to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006 but was beat out by Crash. It won three Oscars: Best Director (Ang Lee), best screenplay and best original score and received more nominations than any other film. The film also did well at the Golden Globes and won the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion best picture award at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. Based on a short story by the popular Chinese author Eileen Chang and set in the 1940s during the Sino-Japanese war, it is a tragic melodrama about a forbidden love affair between a female Chinese spy (Tang Wei) and a male Japanese spy (Tony Leung) she is supposed to kill. The lust and caution in the film is the Japanese spy’s approach to his attraction to the Chinese spy. The violent, sex scenes are said to have been vital to showing that caution had indeed been abandoned. Rolling Stone called the films “erotic and suspenseful. Robert Ebert said it was “exquisitely beautiful.” It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September 2007 after Lee was forced to list as originating from “Taiwan, China”.

In China, Lust, Caution caused a big sensation, particularly pirated versions that could be downloaded on the Internet that contained seven minutes of sex scenes cut by Chinese censors from the screen version of the film. So widely seen were the downloaded versions that health officials issued statements for viewers not to imitate the sometimes violet, joint-extending sexual maneuver achieved in the film.

The sex scenes have been described as sadistic and ruthless and shockingly powerful. One health official wrote: “Most of the sexual maneuvers in Lust, Caution are abnormal body positions, Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm.”

Lust Caution trailer

The 23-year-old actress Tang Tai was the nimble, flexible star of the love scenes. A former student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, she was chosen out of 10,000 actresses for the role even though she had only one previous credit (a supporting television role). On the explicit sex scenes she told the Times of London, “I’m a naturally shy person. I even get shy going to the doctor. So for me...those scenes were difficult. But when she got in her character she said, “they became easier because that’s life for her. And so for a while we just tried to see how far we could go in the name of art.”

Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. The decision was not a popular one. When it was announced reporters and critics watching in the press room booed. At 156 minutes many thought the film was too long. The narrative is slow. The sex is said to be real. A critic with Hollywood Report said: “Ang Lee’s lugubrious spy epic...brings to mind what soldiers say about war: that its long periods of boredom relieved by moments of extremely heightened excitement.”

Image Sources: Movie posters, IMDB, YouTube, Wikipedia, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2011

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