Features

Ang Lee: The versatile directing genius

Writer: Casey Chong



Ang Lee on the set of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" with actor Joe Alwyn.

Pioneer, taboo-breaker, daring, unpredictable and virtuoso... these are some of the words that best describe the Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee. Throughout his illustrious career ever since his 1992 debut via "Pushing Hands", he has directed a total of 13 feature movies, which also includes his upcoming Iraqi war drama "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk".

Whether he makes an independent feature or a commercial Hollywood blockbuster, he is known for his cinematic and thematic versatility in exploring diverse subject matters. For instance, who would have thought that Lee, who started his career making smale-scale family dramas like the aforementioned "Pushing Hands" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" is able to switch to different genres so easily with movies such as the Wuxia epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the CGI-heavy superhero blockbuster "Hulk"?

Not to mention, he is the only Asian filmmaker in the world who made Oscar history for winning two Best Director awards thus far via "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) and "Life Of Pi" (2012).


Joe Alwyn and Vin Diesel in a scene from the movie.


With "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" arriving this November 10, there has been an early buzz surrounding his possible fourth Best Director Oscar nomination (he's first nomination was for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").

Until then, here is a retrospective of all his previous 12 feature movies from his early days as an independent Taiwanese filmmaker to the internationally-renowned director we know of today.

1. The "Father Knows Best" trilogy: "Pushing Hands",
"The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1992-1994)

Sihung Lung (right) in "Pushing Hands".

In his first three movies during the early days of his directing career, Lee explored the central themes of family conflicts and cultural clashes with varying degrees of successes. Lee's directorial debut, "Pushing Hands", tells a story about an elderly Tai Chi master, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) from Beijing who ends up living with his son Alex (Bo Z. Wang) and his non-Chinese speaking American wife Martha (Deb Snyder) in New York. Soon, multiple conflicts ensues as the movie deals with the intergenerational conflicts and cultural aspects between the Eastern and Western traditions. Although Sihung Lung gives a wonderful turn as Mr. Chu, Lee's direction is still rough around the edges and his movie debut here tends to suffer from an incoherent script by James Schamus. Still, "Pushing Hands" remains a curious debut for then-rookie director Lee who subsequently improved further with his immediate follow-up, "The Wedding Banquet".


Winston Chao in "The Wedding Banquet".


In his second directorial effort, Lee explored a taboo-breaking subject about homosexuality surrounding an interracial gay couple played by Winston Chao and Mitchell Lichtenstein. Again, "The Wedding Banquet" features a performance by Sihung Lung while Lee successfully brings the best in all his actors here. "The Wedding Banquet" also explored the same Eastern and Western cultural differences previously seen in "Pushing Hands", with the exception that Lee does it better this time around.


Chinese food never looked this tempting in "Eat Drink Man Woman".


Whereas "Pushing Hands" and "The Wedding Banquet" have had its fair shares of accolades, Lee's third and final movie of his "Father Knows Best" trilogy via "Eat Drink Man Woman" is easily ranked as his best directorial effort if compared with his previous two outings. For the third time in a row, Sihung Lung made an appearance here as the veteran Chinese actor played a widowed Taipei-based chef, Mr. Chu. In "Eat Drink Man Woman", Lee cleverly uses food and other Chinese customs to explore an affective yet humorous look at Mr. Chu and his family. Blessed with a fine ensemble cast all around, the movie emerged as one of the best Taiwanese family dramas ever made in the '90s. Both "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" were nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

2. "Sense And Sensibility" (1995)

Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson in "Sense And Sensibility".

"Sense And Sensibility" marks Lee's first big career move to Hollywood with this beloved Jane Austen adaptation that received plenty of accolades, including seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, with Emma Thompson winning the only award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although Lee was overlooked for a Best Director Oscar nomination, his direction in "Sense And Sensibility" manages to deliver a fresh angle to the often-filmed Jane Austen period drama with a genuine sense of warmth and humour. All the British cast is terrific, ranging from Emma Thompson herself to other strong supports including Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

3. "The Ice Storm" (1997)

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Christina Ricci in "The Ice Storm".

1997 may have been a significant year for big acclaimed movies like "Titanic" and "L.A. Confidential", but Ang Lee's little-seen dark drama about a bunch of dysfunctional families embroiled in a series of sex and drugs-fueled relationships during the 1970s is a lost cinematic treasure worth appreciating. Based on Rick Moody's novel of the same name, "The Ice Storm" sees Lee exploring his recurring theme of familial tension previously seen in his "Father Knows Best" trilogy except with a more sombre approach this time around. The result is a great ensemble piece featuring some of the finest performances ever seen with the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Christina Ricci. While "The Ice Storm" did make a splash at the Cannes Film Festival with James Schamus winning the Best Screenplay award and Lee receiving a nomination for the coveted Palme d'Or, the movie was notoriously overlooked by the Academy Award without a single nomination.

4. "Ride With The Devil" (1999)

Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich in "Ride With The Devil".

"Ride With The Devil" is perhaps known for featuring then-singing sensation Jewel in her movie debut, but other than that, Lee's epic Civil War drama was sadly underrated at the time of its release. Based on the novel "Woe To Live On" by Daniel Woodrell, the story revolves around Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich) who both joined the Southern Bushwhackers to fight against the Northern-side Jayhawkers during the Kansas-Missouri border war. The young cast is terrific and Lee is unique enough to tell a refreshing Civil War story from the Southern point-of-view. Despite the historical subject of the movie, "Ride With The Devil" failed to earn any major award nominations, particularly at the Oscars.

5. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000)

Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi engaged in a sword fight in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

After the underrated efforts of "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With The Devil", Lee made a triumphant return to the Chinese-language cinema with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Based on one of the Wuxia book series "Crane Iron Pentalogy" by Wang Dulu, the martial arts epic also marked a turning point for taking Lee's directing career to a whole new level of success. The plot, which revolves around the two veteran warriors (Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) in the pursuit to recover a stolen sword a.k.a. the Green Destiny from the clutches of Jade Fox's (Cheng Pei-Pei) young apprentice Jen Wu (Zhang Ziyi), is a classic Wuxia tale told in a distinct arthouse manner. Unlike the faster-paced Chinese Wuxia genre (notably from the ones seen in Hong Kong productions), Lee emphasised more on developing his characters and the emotion within than the action itself. Still, Lee is no slouch when comes to the action scenes. Aided by the renowned martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping ("Once Upon A Time In China"), the fight scenes are meticulously staged with a mix of verve and elegance. All the actors are top-notch, especially Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi who both excelled with their solid female roles. Despite the Chinese-fronted production, the movie made history in the U.S. as the most financially successful foreign-language movie with more than US$120 million collected in the country itself. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" also earned an astonishing 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee. Although Lee himself lost to Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" and the coveted Best Picture award went to Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" instead, the movie managed to bring home four wins including a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

6. "Hulk" (2003)

The CGI Hulk goes on a rampage in the middle of San Francisco city in "Hulk".

In his first big-budget studio picture, Lee made a bold attempt to make an epic yet uniquely different superhero drama than most like-minded genre movies that came before. The result was "Hulk", a US$137 million production that was shaped like a remorseful Shakespearian drama with a dose of blockbuster-sized action and special effects. Unfortunately, the movie was hugely divisive at the time of its release with many critics and audiences alike blaming the dark yet melodramatic storytelling approach as well as the questionable CGI Hulk himself and of course, lack of action scenes. But "Hulk" remains a curious experiment unlike the others: Lee's direction of staging his movie in the form of a comic book-like panel with his stylistic touches of colour, split screens and jump cuts is downright inventive. While the CGI Hulk may look cartoonish, a credit should be given to Industrial Light & Magic for successfully creating Hulk's expressive face during some of his close-ups. Long before Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo played the angry green giant, Australian actor Eric Bana deserves praise for playing an emotionally-tormented character as Hulk's alter-ego, Bruce Banner.

7. "Brokeback Mountain" (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain".

Hailed as Hollywood's first gay Western, Ang Lee's epic tale of forbidden love between two male shepherds (Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Swift) set in the summer of 1963, is an award-winning drama that famously won him an Oscar for Best Director. Based on the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain" was deliberately paced in a slow manner to establish an emotional (and eventually physical) connection between Ennis and Jack. Despite the controversial nature of the movie's subject matter, Lee treated homosexuality as a universal love reminiscent of two members of the opposite sex falling for each other. As uncomfortable as seeing both established Hollywood actors like Ledger and Gyllenhaal playing a same-sex couple was, they successfully established a poignant yet heartfelt chemistry in which their career-defining performances deserved to be nominated for Best Actor and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar respectively.

8. "Lust, Caution" (2007)

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Tang Wei in "Lust, Caution".

Following his two Hollywood efforts via "Hulk" and "Brokeback Mountain", Lee made a highly-anticipated return to the Chinese-language cinema for the first time since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with a big screen adaptation of Eileen Chang's novella, "Lust, Caution". Set between the late-1930s and early-1940s during the Japanese-occupied Asian regions of Hong Kong and Shanghai, this espionage thriller follows a Hong Kong university student named Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) who is tasked to seduce a Chinese agent working for the Japanese government, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as part of an elaborate assassination scheme. "Lust, Caution" is yet another taboo-breaking movie for Lee, thanks to its heated controversy surrounding the explicit sex scenes between Tang Wei and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. It was these scenes that almost ruined then-newcomer Tang Wei's career after being banned from acting by the ever-conservative China government for a year. A few controversies aside, "Lust, Caution" proves that Lee has an eye for nurturing fresh talent as Tang Wei's emotionally-charged yet physically daring performance contrasted well with seasoned Hong Kong veteran Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's sneaky role as Mr. Yee.

9. "Taking Woodstock" (2009)

A scene from "Taking Woodstock".

After exploring back-to-back controversial subject matters in "Brokeback Mountain" and "Lust, Caution", Lee chose to let loose with a comedy drama set in the summer of 1969 during one of the most significant music festivals in the U.S. known as the Woodstock. Led by comedian Demetri Martin, "Taking Woodstock" features Lee at his usual best in successfully getting the '60s period details right with the help of cinematographer Eric Gautier. The movie is best seen as part coming-of-age drama and part semi-documentary of sorts that captured the generation-defining era of the unforgettable Woodstock event. Too bad the movie was overlooked at the time of its release and even failed to recoup the US$30 million budget, with only US$10 million collected at the worldwide box office.

10. "Life Of Pi" (2012))

Suraj Sharma and the CGI Bengal tiger in "Life Of Pi".

Once deemed "unfilmable" by three directors including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet who all came aboard but bowed out of the project, Lee took the challenge instead to adapt the Yann Martel award-winning novel "Life Of Pi". He succeeded admirably and the result is one of the most visually-stunning motion pictures ever seen in 2012. Told in a flashback, the epic adventure revolves around a 16-year-old Indian boy named "Pi" Patel (Suraj Sharma), who miraculously survives a shipwreck after a violent storm that drowned all the passengers alongside his family and was left stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Following his stint of handling effects-heavy blockbuster in the underrated "Hulk" nine years ago, Lee had again pushed the boundaries of CGI in "Life Of Pi". This is especially evident with the photorealistic CGI creation of the Bengal tiger. It is so unbelievably lifelike that it comes to no surprise the movie bagged an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Lee himself proves to be a great storyteller as he meshes breathtaking visual spectacles with a subtle level of poignancy. He also deserves a credit for taking a huge gamble of casting Suraj Sharma in the lead role, especially given the fact that the actor has no prior acting experience whatsoever. But under the sheer guidance by Lee himself, his gamble paid off handsomely and Sharma successfully carried the movie with a captivating performance worth praising for. "Life Of Pi" proved to be a huge financial success, with a total of US$609 million collected at the worldwide box office. The movie is also best remembered for another historic Academy Award win for Lee, who won his second Oscar for Best Director, beating the likes of Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln") and David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook").

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" opens in cinemas nationwide on 10 November 2016.

Cinema Online, 02 November 2016


Related Movies:
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (10 Nov 2016)
Life Of Pi (29 Nov 2012)

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