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.
Lee burst into international prominence with "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995, and in 2000 was nominated for best director for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which won the Oscar for best foreign language film. He won Oscars for Best Director twice: for “Brokeback Mountain” (206) and “Life of Pi” (2013). He is also known his unconventional take on “The Hulk.” 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.”
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." The actress Michele 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." Actress Ziyi Zhang said: “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.”
Websites: Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com Books: “Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China's Fifth Generation” by Ni Zhen (Duke University Press, 2002);“Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers” by Micheal Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara; “Lights! Camera! Kaishi!: In-Depth Interviews with China's New Generation of Movie Directors” by Shaoyi Sun and Li Xun (EastBridge, 2009) features interviews with director Jia Zhangke and superstar blogger and female director Xu Jinglei and 19 other leading directors. Sheldon Lu of the University of California, Davis wrote: “It contains illuminating interviews...with the leading directors and sheds light on a whole range of important issues such as independent cinema, censorship, film industry, and globalization. “
Ang Lee's Life
Lee was born in the southern Taiwanese city of Pingtung in 1954. 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. Lee went to the U.S. in 1979 to study film-making at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. After graduated he moved to New York to study film and worked there with Spike Lee.
Lee lives in Larchmont in Westchester County outside in New York City with his wife Jane. Their two sons are now grown. He edits his films in New York. Lee told Newsweek in 2012: Many times when you make a movie, it feels like your biggest mistake. But even if a film isn’t a hit, you shouldn’t view it as a mistake. My mistake is having two sides to my character. When I’m not working, I get very down, but when I am working, I get very immersed in it. “For six years, from 1985 to 1991, I felt pretty weak and useless. I was at home, working on scripts and cooking and taking care of the kids, while my wife, who’s a very strong woman, steady and pragmatic, really stabilized the family. She was working as a medical researcher. I didn’t have much self-esteem, because I’d pitch so many scripts and get back rewrites. It was just endless frustration. I got moody and fell into a near depression. But then I became an older, more mature person who was much more prepared to direct a feature-length film. [Source: Ang Lee, Interview by Marlow Stern, Newsweek, November 18, 2012]
“Years later, when I was making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, I was hardly at home. I spent two years on Crouching Tiger and then another year promoting it all over the world. After the Oscars, I went right into working on Hulk, which took two years. This meant that during my son’s teenage years, I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. I grew up in Taiwan, where those years are all about academics, so I didn’t feel as though I had a lot of life experience to share with him while he was in high school. American high schools are psychologically more complicated. When your children are little, you educate them and share your experiences, but when they’re older, it’s harder, and I wasn’t home enough to give him guidance. There was a level of detachment and a lot of sparse phone conversations. “Work?” “Fine.” “Girlfriend?” “No.” By the time I finished Hulk, he was 17 and already preparing for college, so I had missed out on a lot. I should have made more of an effort.
“After that, I tried to be there more for my second son. My next film, Brokeback Mountain, involved just two months of shooting, and I did the editing in Rye, N.Y., near my then-hometown of Larchmont. I also did postproduction on my next film, Lust, Caution, near my home, so my son would come to the editing room and watch. He wanted to play football, and I tried to talk him out of it because he was so small, but I was there for every game. When he made his first catch, I was so beside myself, I screamed louder than when I won my Academy Award. Once he got to high school, it seemed suicidal to play football, so I finally talked him out of it, and he went into drama. I went to every performance and came home every night to cook dinner. He had a good time working as a production assistant on my film Taking Woodstock and then played Teddy, the boy who gets lost in Bangkok, in The Hangover Part II. He recently graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, just like I did.
“My wife is now retired, and we’re normal people with good kids. Thinking back to those earlier days, I felt I was weak when I wasn’t making movies, and then when I was, I thought I was weak as a family member. It’s more of a big regret, because I truly, honestly wish I could do better as a father and a husband.
Ang Lee Films
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, something...green.”
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, 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 Keanu 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
“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” .
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.
“Brokeback Mountain” was adapted from the 1997 short story of the same name by Annie Proulx and stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and Michelle Williams. It depicts the complex emotional and sexual relationship between two American cowboys named Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Lee became attached to the project after previous attempts to adapt the short story into a film did not materialize. Focus Features and River Road Entertainment jointly produced and distributed the film, which was shot in various locations in Alberta, Canada in 2004. [Source: Wikipedia]
Brokeback Mountain premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival. It received universal acclaim, particular for Lee's direction, its screenplay by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry and the performances of the cast (especially Ledger, Gyllenhaal, and Williams). Brokeback Mountain was included in many film critics' 2005 top-ten lists. It was also commercially successful, grossing $178 million worldwide — not bad for a film with a $14 million budget.
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.”
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.”
Life of Pi
Life of Pi was another triumph for Lee. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won four in 2013 — more than any other film from 2012: 1) Ang Lee won for Best Director; 2) Claudio Miranda won Best Cinematography; 3) Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer won for Best Visual Effects; and 4) Mychael Danna) won for Best Original Score. It was also a commercial success, earning $570.9 million worldwide within tow months after its release.
Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post: “This adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2003 novel takes viewers on an epic journey — in this case the 200-day odyssey of its title character and his unconventional travel companion — but it also plunges them into a story, and the myriad sub-stories it contains. Like a lyrical, extravagantly hued children’s pop-up book, “Life of Pi” both draws the audience in and encourages it to settle back, the better to enjoy its virtually nonstop display of daring, wonder and cinematic virtuosity. If the story goes “poof” almost as soon as the covers close, that’s probably due to the depth of the source material rather than the movie itself. [Source: Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, November 21, 2012]
“The story of Piscine Patel, also known as Pi, “Life of Pi” begins with an Edenic panorama of his youth, which was spent in a small zoo run by his father in the cosmopolitan former French colony of Pondicherry, India. (Pi is played as a youth by Ayush Tandon and as a teenager by Suraj Sharma.) In the languorous compound he shares with zebras, flamingos, hummingbirds and hippos, Pi pursues an idyllic youth and adolescence, the latter of which is spent discovering love, reading Dostoevski, questioning the existence of God and debating religion with his nonbelieving father.
“When the Patels decide to move to Canada, taking the animals with them on a Japanese cargo ship, the trip is interrupted by a ruinous storm, resulting in Pi being thrown overboard, his only salvation a lifeboat that he must share with the zoo’s ferocious Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. Pi’s journey with Richard Parker forms the main spine of “Life of Pi,” which director Ang Lee infuses with the graphic, stylized boldness of illustration and moments of dazzling poetry and intimacy. Proving that digital 3-D photography need not sacrifice detail and brightness like it once did, Lee re-imagines Martel’s story with a vibrant, multicolored palette, the images and staging suggesting a state-of-the art cinematic fairy tale rather than a whiz-bang technical achievement.
“Life of Pi” almost didn’t get made because its $120 million pricetage was deemed to high by its makers at 20th Century Fox. “"I read the book shortly after it came out and I remember thinking, 'This shouldn't be made into a movie,'" Lee told the Los Angeles Times. "The artistic and the economic sides didn't meet. If you spend too much money, you have to be mainstream. But if you don't spend the money, you are not doing justice to the book.""It's the biggest gamble I've ever taken," said Elizabeth Gabler, the veteran 20th Century Fox executive who oversaw the film.“ According to the Los Angeles Times: “"Life of Pi" features a menagerie of animals, including a Bengal tiger and thousands of flying fish. To replicate Pacific storms, the production crew built a 1.7-million-gallon water tank in Taiwan that generated capsizing waves. The four animals stranded on the lifeboat with Pi, the only person to survive a cargo ship's sinking, are a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the tiger. To ensure that lead actor Suraj Sharma wouldn't be ripped to shreds by his costars, the realistic animals are almost entirely computer-animated creations.
“Before filming was set to commence in mid-2010, though, Fox pulled the plug on the production. "It was too much money and too scary," Gabler said. Determined to save the movie, Lee flew from Taiwan to Century City and showed top executives the screen test of Sharma (a novice picked from more than 3,000 hopefuls) and plans for staging the ship's sinking. By the time the presentation was over, Fox's top brass had reversed their decision as long as Gabler could trim tens of millions of dollars from the film's budget. [Source: John Horn and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times, November 19, 2012]
For 'Life of Pi': Lee Hired a “Real-Life” Raft Survivor
Meredith Blake wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Famously-meticulous Ang Lee originally had planned to hire a survival consultant to infuse the allegorical tale of a boy's oceangoing raft journey with a tiger with a dose of realism. Then he read Steven Callahan's riveting 1986 memoir, "Adrift," detailing his own perilous life-raft adventure in the Atlantic. In Callahan, Ang and screenwriter David Magee saw a guide who understood and could articulate the metaphysical themes they were hoping to explore in the film. "We very quickly realized we were dealing with someone who had more than just passing knowledge in the kind of story we were trying to tell," Magee says. [Source: Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2012]
“In January 1982, Callahan — "30 and full of beans" — set sail from Finisterre, Spain, on a solo trek across the Atlantic. Little more than a week into the journey, his 21-foot sloop Napoleon Solo sank in a lonely stretch of the Atlantic some 450 miles west of the Canary Islands. Callahan spent the ensuing 76 days living as an "aquatic caveman" aboard a 6-foot raft he named Rubber Ducky. Food was scarce initially, but as Rubber Ducky drifted along the North Equatorial Current toward the Caribbean, barnacles began to collect on the bottom, attracting small fish and, eventually, an entire school of dorado (mahi mahi). "At first the ocean is crystal clear and empty, and it's like, how am I going to possibly live out here? But after a few days, anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology," Callahan said in a phone interview from his home in Maine, where he is battling leukemia. "Life is profound in that way."
“Like Pi and his tiger, Callahan grew unexpectedly attached to his "little doggies," able to recognize an individual fish nudging against the raft "the way you recognize different neighbors' knocks on the back door," he wrote in "Adrift." Nevertheless, he killed one every few days for sustenance, and the fish sometimes fought back. The darkest moment of his journey arrived on Day 43, when a flailing dorado punctured a 4-inch hole in the raft. It took Callahan 10 days of desperate trial and error to finally jury-rig a patch using a fork and some fishing line.
“The constant struggle for survival was like "life on steroids," says Callahan. "If some little thing comes along and works, it's like elation. And if something presses you down, it is just the most painful thing." When Callahan was finally rescued, just off the coast of the small Caribbean island of Marie-Galante, it was again thanks to the dorado. A group of local fishermen spotted birds on the horizon, circling the school of fish, and came to investigate. What they found — in addition to a jackpot of prized dorado — was a bearded, emaciated man who hadn't laid eyes on another human in nearly three months. "The dorado fed me, they nourished me, they almost killed me, and in the end they brought my salvation," Callahan says. Despite feeling like "a Judas," Callahan happily waited while the fishermen hauled in the dorado. "This is the greatest gift I could possibly give to these guys. We're all brothers of the sea."
“After some recuperation, Callahan eventually returned a changed man. "I had convinced myself I was kind of a sea creature. And I learned from the experience I was definitely not a sea creature and they were all very much superior to me in that domain, and that I very much needed people." A brief but intense period of media attention followed, including an appearance on "The Tonight Show" and a profile in People magazine. Callahan returned to the seafaring life, sailing all over the world, lecturing and designing boats — including an improved life raft called "The Clam."
“There are small habits left over from his days aboard Rubber Ducky that he's never quite been able to shake. For a long time he made sure to have food — a small jar of peanut butter or the like — with him everywhere he went; to this day, he still has to remind himself to stay hydrated. "My natural tendency is to conserve water," he says.
“Otherwise, according to Lee and Magee, there are few outward indications that Callahan endured such a harrowing ordeal. "I didn't see a trace of the traumatic; all I see is the courage," Lee says. "He can make even the most painful experience sound interesting and serene." Callahan ended up working with nearly every department on the film during months of production in Taiwan. He coached Suraj Sharma, the young actor playing Pi, about the psychological distress of being adrift, and crafted numerous props, including a shade canopy using only materials Pi would have had on the lifeboat. He also spent countless hours experimenting with the 1.86-million gallon wave tank built especially for the film.
“Some of the impressions he shared with Lee made it into the film, such as a jumping phosphorescent whale and the sense that, on a clear, mirror-calm night, being at sea can feel like being in space. "I'm not very good at sitting around. I get my fingers into everybody else's pie," Callahan says.
Taiwanese Proud of Ang Lee's Success
After “Life of Pi”’s success at the Oscars, Associated Press reported: “A second Academy Award for best director has thrust Taiwan native Ang Lee into the top ranks of world film-makers and made him a national hero on this diplomatically isolated island. Lee's victory followed his 2005 directorial win for "Brokeback Mountain."“News of Lee's triumph electrified Taiwanese, many of whom watched a live TV broadcast of the event. It was not only the surprise nature of the directorial award — "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg was considered the category's clear frontrunner — but the intense pride they felt at a native son making it big in the world at large.
“Since losing most of its diplomatic allies to China in the 1970s and 1980s Taiwan has been on the outer fringes of the international community. It is now recognized by only a handful of countries — mostly impoverished and devoid of influence — and outside of information technology circles, its global footprint is small. “Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou saw Lee's triumph as at least a temporary reversal of those fortunes, thanking Lee for "pushing Taiwan toward the world." "Taiwanese are proud of you," Ma said in a congratulatory message.[Source: Associated Press, February 25, 2013]
“Making Lee's Oscar win even sweeter was Taiwan's key role in the production of "Life of Pi." A majority of the film was shot at a specially constructed water tank in the central city of Taichung, and Taiwanese took many of the most important jobs in seeing the film to completion. Taiwanese production team member Mike Yang said Lee had the total devotion of the Taichung crew. "If he wanted us to make the wave bigger or the movement of the animated tiger more detailed, we were willing to cooperate, and not because he was Ang Lee but because he commanded respect," Yang said. “Lee also has a strong following in mainland China. Chinese movie critic Meng Yuankai congratulated Lee on his win. "It's pride for the ethnic Chinese group. Can't wait for the next production," he said.
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.
Last updated November 2021