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Retrospective: The Films Of Ang Lee

Retrospective: The Films Of Ang Lee

For a filmmaker who’s tackled a wide range of genres, from minor-key Chinese-language comedies to epic kung-fu action, from nuanced literary Americana to iconic CGI-driven superheroics, it’s actually relatively easy to spot an Ang Lee film if you know what you’re looking for. Superficially, the Taiwanese-born, American-trained filmmaker has an deeply eclectic and diverse taste in subject matter, setting and even style (one could never imagine that “Sense & Sensibility” and “Hulk” came from the same director from the shooting techniques used alone), but all kinds of thematic links recur across the director’s work — family, repression, duty, thwarted love or desire. Whether it’s 1940s Shanghai or Civil War-era Missouri, you can find the same humanistic concerns, even as the filmmaker finds new things to say about them.

Lee’s latest, the long-awaited adaptation of Yann Martel’s “Life Of Pi,” again sees the director moving into new territory with an effects-heavy, 3D, visually extraordinary adventure that might be the director’s most spiritual film to date (read our A-grade review here). With the movie opening this Wednesday, and looking all but certain to win Lee his third Best Director Oscar nomination (and possibly even his second win), it seemed like a good idea to look over the director’s complete career to date. You can find our verdicts on the first 20 years of Ang Lee films below, and one can only hope there’s plenty more where they came from. 

“Pushing Hands” (1992)
Essentially unemployed for years after graduating from NYU, Lee finally got a break in 1990 after two of his screenplays, co-written with regular collaborator James Schamus, placed first and second in a competition organized by the Chinese government. Initially, they refused to fund the winner, “The Wedding Banquet,” because of its gay subject matter, so instead “Pushing Hands” was the one which ended up in production. A gentle culture-clash comedy-drama, the story follows Mr. Chu (future Lee regular Sihung Lung), a t’ai chi instructor who leaves China to live with his son Alex (Bo Z Wang) and his neurotic writer wife Martha (Deb Snyder) in New York. It’s a modest but sweet little film that pits Chu’s traditional family-led values against the harsh, selfish world of the U.S., while also giving him a faltering romance with Taiwanese widower Mrs .Chen (Lai Wang). It is also very much a first film. Lee’s direction is a bit scrappy, the script doesn’t quite cohere, and while Sihung Lung is wonderful, carrying much of the film on his shoulders, Wang and Snyder feel somewhat amateurish. But still, it’s intriguing to see where Lee began, and how the themes of much of his work are already in place so early on. [C+]

“The Wedding Banquet” (1993)
Pushing Hands” won some acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival, but it didn’t see the light of day in the U.S. outside the festival circuit until after the release of “Sense & Sensibility.” But Lee didn’t have to wait too long for his breakthrough in the States. He returned to Berlin the following year with the second of those two award-winning scripts with “The Wedding Banquet,” which proved to be a serious crowd-pleasing hit, winning the Golden Bear. Forming the second part of his family values trilogy, it’s got a premise that almost could have come from a mid-’90s mainstream rom-com. Gay couple Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) are happy in their lives, but Wai-Tung’s traditional Taiwanese parents, oblivious to their son’s sexuality, keep pushing for him to get married. To get them off their backs, he decides to have a sham marriage with Chinese tenant Wei-Wei (May Chin — who’s now a politician in China), who needs a green card. Inevitably, Wai-Tun’s parents arrive to throw him the titular celebration, and things become increasingly complicated. Lee seems to be much more confident with actors, and virtually all the cast are wonderful, including a returning Sihung Lung. The comedy, both broad and subtle, is effective, and there’s more going on under the surface, with a similar culture clash dynamic to “Pushing Hands” surfacing, argably in a more effective way. Lee has real love for his characters, letting them surprise the audience, and the whole thing is enormously likeable. It might not be the most ambitious film the director ever made, but it’s where he really started to hit his groove. [B+]

“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)
The last of the trilogy that kicked off Lee’s career, and his first film set entirely within his native Taiwan (as well as his second film in a row to earn a Foreign Language Oscar nomination), with Sihung Lung once again returning to the patriarchal role, “Eat Drink Man Woman” isn’t perhaps as effective all around as its predecessor, but again demonstrates Lee as an empathetic, humanistic filmmaker. It also joins the ranks of “Babette’s Feast,” “Like Water For Chocolate” and “Big Night” as one of the great foodie films ever made (it was also remade as the Latino-flavored “Tortilla Soup” eight years later, to lesser effect). This time out, Lung plays Chu, a master chef at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, who lives with his three grown daughters: Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang). Each has a tangled love life, and is keen to leave the family home and a father who’s long since thrown himself into his work at the expense of his family relationships. In terms of the filmmaking, it’s easily Lee’s most accomplished film to date, and it’s a near impossible feat to watch DoP Lin Jong‘s work (his last collaboration with Lee) and not rush to the nearest Chinese restaurant afterwards. Bit while it’s gently funny and touching, the characters aren’t drawn with the complexity that you’d perhaps like, and it sometimes feels like an extended TV episode as a result. The structure too, which jumps between the family’s regular Sunday meals together, is a little counter-intuitive to the storytelling sometimes. The performances are, as ever, marvelous, particularly from the ever-great Lung, and it’s a perfectly enjoyable family drama. But better things were to come from the director… [B-]

“Sense & Sensibility” (1995)
On first glance, Lee was far from the obvious choice to direct an adaptation of the Jane Austen period classic, which had been penned by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Indeed, Lee had never heard of Austen, and later said he thought at the time, “I thought they were crazy… what do I know about 19th century England?” But it’s easy to see what Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran saw in Lee off the back of his previous films, and the gamble paid off as “Sense & Sensibility” is one of the best cinematic Austen adaptations ever made, with Lee’s sense of manners and family life, as well as his warmth and humor, shining through. Plot wise, the story follows Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie Francois) after their death of their father (Tom Wilkinson). Elinor begins to fall for longtime family friend Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), while the young Marianne is loved by the older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), but instead is smitten with the less-than-trustworthy John Willoughby (Greg Wise). It’s staple Austen fare, but Thompson’s screenplay is an exceptional adaptation, arguably funnier than the source material. And in Lee’s hands, it never feels stuffy or dusty. The director brings out the heartbreak from the repression, thanks to an exceptional cast, not least his two leads in Thompson and Winslet (in her first role after breaking out in “Heavenly Creatures“). Almost single-handedly reviving interest in Austen (it was the first English-language film based on the writer’s work for half a century), it doesn’t exactly reinvent the medium, but it’s hard to imagine a better take on the novel than what the director comes up with here. The Academy certainly agreed, giving the film seven Oscar nominations, and a win for Thompson for Best Screenplay, making her the first, and so far only, person to win both writing and acting awards. [A-]

“The Ice Storm” (1997)
Curiously undervalued on release (it won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but failed to pick up a single Oscar nomination, and proved a box office disappointment), a decade and a half of passing time, and a Criterion release, has seen “The Ice Storm” takes its rightful place as one of Lee’s finest achievements. Based on Rick Moody‘s acclaimed 1994 novel, it sees Lee once again turn his lens on family, but for the first time looking at WASP-ish American suburban life, through two families in 1970s Connecticut. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) are hardly happily married. Ben is having an affair with promiscouous neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whose own teenage son Mikey (Elijah Wood) is experimenting with the Hood’s daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci). Meanwhile, older son Paul (Tobey Maguire) has sex on the mind too, hoping to beat his roommate Francis (David Krumholtz) to sleeping with classmate Libbets (a pre-“Dawson’s CreekKatie Holmes). Everything comes to a head as an ice storm hits the town, leading to tragedy. It’s rare for an ensemble piece such as this to give everyone a fair shake, but almost every character (even one like Janey’s husband, played by “Homeland” actor Jamey Sheridan) gets material of real weight to deal with, and the cast continually surprise with the deftness of their performances, from career-best turns from veterans Kline and Weaver to head-turning newcomers like Maguire (in his first major lead role), and Holmes. James Schamus’ screenplay is sharper and darker than anything he’d done with Lee up to this point, marking a shift away from the comedies of manners of the director’s first four films to more complex territory, but his trademark empathy is retained too. And Lee has evolved as a filmmaker too; the closing sequences during the storm are among the most beautiful things he’s filmed to date. Overshadowed by near-contemporary fare like “American Beauty” and “Happiness,” it might be actually be smarter and more moving than either. [A]

“Ride With The Devil” (1999)
Lee spent his first five films going from success to success, but came unstuck somewhat with “Ride With The Devil,” a $40 million Civil War movie that received more muted reviews than its predecessors, and, buried by strong competition at the box office, failed to make back even $1 million. Again, a Criterion release (of Lee’s longer director’s cut) has helped to restore the film’s reputation, but in our eyes, it still falls a little way short of the lost masterpiece some have claimed it as. Based on Daniel Woodrell‘s novel “Woe To Live On,” it centers on Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), a German-American in Missouri who, with best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Johnny Depp Was Unavailable” Ulrich), join the guerilla-style Bushwhackers on the Confederate side after Chiles’ father is murdered by Jayhawkers. Along the way, they join up with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), and both fall for pro-Confederate widow Sue Lee Shelley (country star Jewel, in her only major acting role). Looking at the story of the war from the perspective of the South feels unusual, even a little daring these days, and Lee certainly brings a fresh perspective; it’s a gritty, brutal, ground-level view, owing almost as much to Vietnam as to other Civil War movies. And one has to admire the meditative pace (especially in Lee’s two-and-a-half hour director’s cut) and the complex, novelistic nature of the film; there’s no attempt to shoehorn in a traditional narrative or anything similar. But it ultimately makes the film something of a difficult watch, not helped by the way in which Lee’s instincts for putting the right person in the right role seem, for once, to have failed him. Wright is the stand-out, but much of the cast, from Maguire downwards, feel miscast. It’s not so much that the likes of Jewel and Ulrich are bad, it’s more that they’re merely adequate (especially given that Schamus’ dialogue here isn’t his finest),and when Mark Ruffalo crops up in a smallish role, it’s hard not to wish he’d been given something more prominent, over someone like Maguire or Jonathan Rhys Meyers. There are some exceptional scenes and moments in there, but it still feels like something of a misstep for the director. [C+]

“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Tail somewhat between his legs after “Ride WIth The Devil,” Lee returned to Taiwan for his next film, and triumphed, with his most successful film up to that point, and one that firmly launched the next act of his career. Once more turning to literary source material, in this case the “Crane Iron Pentalogy” by Wang Dulu (and more specifically the fourth book in the series), “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was Lee’s take on the martial arts genre, melding the instinct for character and emotion he’d displayed across his work with kung-fu action courtesy of Yuen-Woo Ping, who’d come to international fame with his work on “The Matrix” the previous year. The plot sees warriors Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) on the trail of a stolen sword, the Green Destiny, taken by the evil Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei) and her young apprentice Jen (Zhang Ziyi). It’s epic, soaring stuff, and very much a traditional wuxia tale, but Lee brings contemporary sensibilities to it, with strong female characters and an arthouse feel. Not that the action isn’t cracking, because it is; the fight scenes are among the best genre, even if some of the superpowered leaping doesn’t quite hold up on second viewings. And it should be said that the structure doesn’t quite work, the extended flashback romance between Jen and bandit Lo (Chang Chen) stopping the film dead in its tracks for twenty minutes or so. But it’s the lovely performances (particularly by Yun-fat and Yeoh, playing out a sort of wu-shu version of “Howard’s End“), the very deep vein of feeling, and the stunning photography by Peter Pau that really linger after the fact. The film was a monumental success, earning ten Oscar nominations, and becoming the most successful foreign-language film ever in the U.S, and it put Lee on the top of many studio wishlists. For better or for worse… [B+]

“Hulk” (2003)
In an era of interchangeable superhero adventures, “Hulk,” which came towards the end of that first wave of 21st century movies in the genre, still stands as something genuinely different. Eschewing the typical structure and action beats of the superhero movie, the film instead turns the psychological and physiological freak-out of scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), Lee’s most repressed character in a career full of them, into a kind of grotesque Greek Tragedy, while emphasizing the pop art sensibilities of the comic book medium. For better or worse, stylistically the film was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. In particular, the way that Lee would parcel up the frame into “panels,” turning the whole thing into a living comic book, remains a shocking, unparalleled stylistic flourish amidst a sea of blandly spruced-up epics. (And by all accounts this was the tamest version of “Hulk” Lee fashioned. A New York Times story that came out around the same time as “Hulk” quoted someone close to the production as saying, “You thought that was weird, you should have seen it six months ago.”) While “Hulk” doesn’t completely work – the pacing suffers due to a lack of forward momentum and conflict, plus sometimes Lee’s editorial tics become distractingly odd – it is a movie overflowing with personality, with lots to love (Nick Nolte, as Banner’s father, memorably chews the scenery). And what other comic book movie in recent memory has something as flat-out bizarre as Nolte turning into a giant jellysfish? [B]

“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Some would say the tone of Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” is elegiac, beautifully tragic and timeless, the time period of the ’70s and ’80s set aside to present a mild west where cowboys are forever retreating to explore their deep longing. Others would blast the sheepish refusal of topicality, given that “Brokeback Mountain” (which won Lee the Best Director Oscar) manages to be a watershed film in queer cinema without a character once uttering the word “gay.” Lee’s obliviousness towards the legacy of gay cinema does indeed lead to a narrative where one of the two men refuses to acknowledge their own natural orientation in favor of a single true love, one that follows the popular formula where homosexuals must always be punished in some ways for their identity. But it’s also impossible to miss how Lee shatters the hetero-normative idea of a bucking cowboy with beautiful, square-jawed Ennis, brought to life by a titanic performance by the late Heath Ledger. The legacy of this film amongst the simple-minded will likely turn to jokes and mimicry of Jake Gyllenhaal’s fey Jack Twist (an affecting turn unfortunately susceptible to casual mockery), but Lee lands a strong punctuation mark in a carnival sequence where Ennis defends his family from a couple of drunken hooligans, displaying protective fury before basking in an all-American tableau of his eyes hidden underneath a cowboy hat, fireworks blasting in the background. [A-]

“Lust, Caution” (2007)
While it won him his second Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in two years, “Lust Caution,” Lee’s return to Chinese-language filmmaking, ultimately proved to be one of the more divisive films of his career, even aside from the controversy resulting from its semi-explicit sex scenes. A wartime thriller owing more than a little to Hitchcock’s “Notorious” in its premise, it follows Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a student in Hong Kong who becomes involved in the resistance against the Japanese invasion. Four years later, in Shanghai, she’s tasked with seducing senior collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as part of an assassination plot. Visually, the film is terrific, with fine period detail and wonderful photography from “Brokeback Mountain” DoP Rodrigo Prieto. But the film is hampered by the indulgence that a success like “Brokeback Mountain” often brings, mostly spinning its wheels for the first hour of a luxurious 160-minute run time. And for all of the supposedly boundary-pushing sex scenes, the central romance, and the characters living it out, feel a little thinly drawn, Lee’s pristine filmmaking can never quite scratch the surface of his story, and it feels curiously distant as a result, although the ending packs an undeniable punch. It’s a handsome and absorbing film, but one easier to admire than to really like. [C+]

“Taking Woodstock” (2009)
Overlooked upon its initial release, “Taking Woodstock” is one of Lee’s most purely enjoyable movies – part coming-of-age comedy, part dramatic historical recreation, all LSD-tinged fun – mixing the director’s technical playfulness with genuine emotional underpinnings. Comedian Demetri Martin stars as the kid who brought Woodstock to his small town in upstate New York (depending on whose account you believe), and Lee wisely chooses to center the movie around Martin’s family motel and not the concert. In fact, you never see one performance, which is sort of a running joke that the Martin character can never make it to see any music, but is also an ingenious way of covering material that has already been analyzed, documented, and dramatized to death (and one suspects, helpful when it comes to the budget). Lee gives shout-outs to the original Woodstock documentary and iconography from the concert (including the couple from the VW van), creating a freewheeling, goofily enjoyable atmosphere for his crazy cast of hippie characters (including Liev Schreiber as a transvestite and Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam vet). “Taking Woodstock” is as buoyant and bubbly as “Brokeback Mountain” was heartbreaking and bleak. The music, of course, is great, and augmented by a lovely, twangy score by Danny Elfman. Just because this is one of Lee’s “minor” efforts, and is a little too breezy and congenial for some tastes, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. [B-]

Thoughts? What do you think of Lee’s oeuvre and his eclectic career? Is there a uncharted direction you’d like to see him go? Weigh in with your own thoughts and favorites in the comments section below. — Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor and Gabe Toro

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