Director and explorer Ang Lee: “I’m a slave to a project, not the master.”

Written on August 18, 2016


Originally there is no path in this world, but when someone starts to walk upon it, a path then comes into being.

Ang Lee is such an explorer. Having received two Academy Awards for Best Director, the 61-year-old is not complacent. This time, he is back in the spotlight with his new work Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which mingles different ingredients of high-tech (3D, at 4K resolution and high frame rate for each eye) to push filmmaking beyond anything the public has ever seen, even beyond the capacity of most movie theaters.

Planned for release in November, this new movie, based on Ben Fountain’s novel, tells a story about Iraq War heroes whisked back Stateside for a victory tour. Speaking of the progress of Billy Lynn, Lee admitted to Variety in April, “I’m struggling. The technology’s really different. We’re the first ones to do this. But how do you do the art, using this technology? That is more difficult.”

Billy Lynn’s format, named Immersive Digital at Sony, is not a single breakthrough. It combines two additional elements to the wide-spread 3D, namely the quadrupled resolution (4K) and a quintupled frame rate (120/second). Former Disney exec Howard Lukk told Variety after seeing a 11-minute Billy Lynn footage, “I’m stunned. It’s a really powerful film, and a really clear presentation. It’s the best 3D I’ve ever seen in my life.”

While enthusiastically embracing the full potential of digital tools, Lee focuses beyond the technology itself. “I’m not a technical person,” said Lee. “As long as it allows me to see what I want to see, I just cope with (the tech). I found a new way of looking that’s closer to my eyes. That’s very exciting.”

This is not the first time Lee’s movies defied pigeonholing. As one of the most versatile filmmakers of our time, his trajectory is full of new attempts, no matter in terms of topics, countries, categories or styles. This Taiwan-born director started to establish himself by three well-received art-house pieces about Chinese families, Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The trilogy made his name to direct the screen adaptation (1995) of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. After the England classic, he moved towards two American movies, The Ice Storm (1997) about suburban alienation in 1970s, and Ride with the Devil (1999) with a Civil War background. Swinging back to Chinese culture, his mystical martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon garnered four Academy Awards in 2000. After that came a major slump in his career: Hulk (2003), originally from comics, received very controversial critics. Two years later, He returned with his adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novel Brokeback Mountain in 2005, which not only restored his status as a director of global importance, but also winning him three more Oscars, including one for Best Director. In 2007, he presented Lust, Caution, about sex and love in the Chinese wartime espionage, becoming a hit overseas. Following the 2009 American movie Taking Woodstock about the 1969 Woodstock Festival, his Life of Pi (2012), a survival story of an Indian boy and a tiger, won four Academy Awards, giving him the glory of a second Oscar Best Director Award.

It intrigues many actors and critics how Lee managed to make such varied movies. He revealed to the Telegraph in 2012, “I pick things I have a visceral response to, because they have to move me, otherwise there’s no point in doing them.” This strict and determined practice is indicated by his mere 12 full-length feature films over 24 years. “I’m a slave to a project, not the master,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to bring it to fruition and make the people who surround me believe in it.”

The Growth of a Meek “Rebel”

The one common subject in Lee’s work is emotional repression and expression. Lee himself is an expert on the theme, after being raised in a tense environment. Lee’s paternal grandparents were executed during the Cultural Revolution in China. Thereafter, his parents fled to Taiwan, where he was born as one of four children. Lee’s father was a traditional stern patriarch, who wanted him to have a respectable profession, such as being a university teacher. Lee recalled in an interview with the Guardian in 2013, “When I was growing up, he made me study all the time; studying was all that was important to him. He was not much fun and he was kind of disillusioned in me in some ways. Artistically, I was very repressed.”

“I was a very docile, extremely shy and timid kid,” he told the Telegraph. “I was never rebellious and never lost my composure. But once I got to be in touch with art and acted on stage for the first time when I was 18, I knew that was what I wanted to do.” Against his parents’ will, teenage Lee fell in love with the cinema since then.

Approach the Starting Point

After discovering his passion, Lee skipped university, to attend Taiwan’s National Arts School. In spite of his timid temperament, he became the “best actor in the school”. He gained an opportunity to study theatre at the University of Illinois and later film at New York University.

However, he found his poor English a stumbling block on the road to suceeding as an actor in America; thereby he made up his mind to become a director, which would enable him to achieve the dualism of his Eastern culture background and Western aspirations. “I try to get the best of both worlds,” he said in another interview with the Guardian in 2003.

His wife, Jane Lin, is a Taiwanese microbiologist. They met when Lee came to the States in 1978 and married in 1983. They have two sons, Haan, 32, and Mason, 26. After graduation, Lee was “unemployed” for six years until he managed to work on Pushing Hands, during which period the entire family lived on Lin’s income. “I was lucky, my wife provided for the family herself, and never asked me to find a job. I was picking up the kids from school and doing the cooking and writing. Most of the time I didn’t do anything – there was a lot of anxiety because I couldn’t invest in anything apart from filmmaking.”

After the first movie, the situation improved rapidly. Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy, Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, knocked open the door to Hollywood for him.

Arrival in Hollywood

Lee landed on Columbia TriStar’s England classic Sense and Sensibility in 1995, starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant. The story follows the wealthy Dashwood sisters as they must deal with circumstances of sudden destitution.

As it was the first movie in English for Lee, the language limitation and cultural difference were huge hurdles. Talking about what it was like to work with Lee with BAFTA Guru, the screenwriter and actress Emma Thompson noted how shocked Lee was when the first time he being asked questions and provided suggestions by the actors, attributing to the Taiwanese culture. After the initial disjuncture was solved, she recalled as having “the most wonderful time because his notes were so brutal and funny”.

In embarrassment when recalling the experience, Lee told the Guardian in 2003, “I feel so bad about the actors who took my directions back then. But that unfortunately was to do with the language barrier. The only way I could get around to saying anything was in bold English. At that time, I couldn’t even speak a full sentence. This English cast and crew, imagine, I couldn’t even see an American, let alone a Chinese. I was very intimidated.”

The painful transform from Chinese to British films did not prevent Lee’s work from becoming a great success: Sense and Sensibility received the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and won Best Adapted Screenplay for Thompson.

Remove the East-West Barrier

In 1999, Lee was invited by his old supporter Li-Kong Hsu to make a movie in the traditional Chinese wuxia genre, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Lee gathered a team from the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Mainland China.

Lee told the IndieWire, “It’s very difficult and could be dangerous to the actors who have to think about acting while hitting each other in a precise way.” To achieve the balance, the team spent much time and effort. “I killed them [the actors]. I really pushed them. There’s really no easy answer to that.”

Lee hoped the movie would “break the barrier on how foreign films play” in America. And it did. With dialogue in Mandarin and a US$17 million budget, the film was a surprising box-office smash worldwide, grossing $213.5 million. The film became the highest grossing film with foreign subtitles in many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

The film won over 40 awards: The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Taiwan) and three other Academy Awards, four BAFTAs and two Golden Globe Awards, among others.

Frustration with the Hulk

In 2003, Lee directed the Hulk, a film received mixed reviews and became a moderate success. With a large budget of $137 million, it ended up grossing over $245 million. When filming was still in progress, Lee was burdened with the duty for the massive money-making operation. “I’d lie awake at night, having bad dreams. I felt really weird and had bad thoughts and couldn’t sleep. I realized the movie was just a small advertisement for the whole big food chain. It’s not only a big movie, it’s a billion-dollar franchise,” he told the Guardian.

What prevented him from breaking down was a sense of responsibility to filmmaking. “I had to be functional,” he said. “That’s what I found about making big movies. Who can hold up? Can you withstand the pressure, the absurdity, and still function? I think a lot of people do big movies not because they are talented artists, but because they can function in the circumstances.” Although Lee considered an early retirement after the frustration, his father’s praise, for the first time to his work, encouraged him to continue making movies.

Break the Homosexual Taboo

Lee’s Brokeback Mountain’s emerged to be a commercial and critical success in 2005, which was the turning point of Lee finally ranking into the A-list of Hollywood directors. This movie is about the tale of two itinerant ranch-hands in the early 1960s, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who get a summer’s work shepherding on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming.

Lee cherished the story a lot. Speaking of his encounter with it, Lee told a BBC interviewer in 2006, “It was almost four years ago I read the short story and then the script. I think this is one of those great scripts that had never been done and was just floating around. When one of the characters says, ‘All we got is Brokeback Mountain – everything is built on that,’ it strikes me as some kind of existentialism. Towards the end, I got tears in my eyes.”

The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, the most nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, where it won three: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It also won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Best Picture and Best Director at the British Academy Film Awards, and Golden Globe Awards.

It was a decade since Lee directed Sense and Sensibility in England, where his suitability for the job was questioned because of his tense relationship with the actors. The situation seemed to be very different at this stage. As actress Anne Hathaway said, “I adore Ang Lee. I think he’s a genius. So sweet, so humble and such a strong director at the same time as being such a gentle man. He’s wonderful to be around.” Lee was growing, not only in directing.

Love and Sex, Again

Just like the unconventional western Brokeback Mountain with its honest portrayal of a gay love affair, Lust, Caution became another controversial movie of Lee’s. In the US, it was labeled as NC-17. Although that limited its audience in America, and certainly the box office, it didn’t diminish its impact. “Lee is a true master,” declared Rolling Stone, “and his potently erotic and suspenseful film casts a spell you won’t want to break.”

This spy thriller, adapted from Eileen Chang’s novella, is set in China’s 1940s bitter conflict with Japanese invaders, but like Brokeback Mountain, it also explores topics of sex and desire: Wong Chia Chi, a young woman recruited by the resistance to seduce a collaborator, Mr. Yee, who finds herself dangerously attracted to her prey.

Insisting the three sex scenes as “pivotal parts of the story”, Lee told the Guardian, “I’m a shy human being. After half a day, we had to stop, it was so exhausting. To verbalize the feelings and lead the actors through those acts and witness how much they devote to it, it’s very painful. Usually, we don’t go there. I don’t intend to go there again.”

In me the tiger sniffs the rose

Soon in 2012, Lee was on another fictional journey, Life of Pi, from Yann Martel’s Booker-winning novel, which tells how an Indian boy, Piscine Patel, survives a shipwreck that kills his family, and survives for 227 days in a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The Chicago Sun-Times described it as “a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery”.

To create such a feast for the eyes, Lee confronted great obstacles when filming Life of Pi.  “Kid, water, big special effects, animals – and they have to be in a small boat on water. It seemed to be a filmmaker’s every nightmare,” Lee told the Telegraph in 2012.

“I thought it was difficult and challenging and I got geared up and decided. ‘I’ll be the one to do this’, but once I got into it, I thought it was a dumb idea to have picked it up,” he laughed.

The crew filmed in Taiwan for almost half a year. For Lee, it was a “warm and emotional” home return. “Everybody wanted to help and make it happen,” he said. “There was a lot of spiritual encouragement and financial help, and they invested a lot of love in me. It was like coming full circle, going back there. Taiwan is like my floating island. It’s oceanic and I’ve been adrift, floating like Pi, all my life.”

Lee’s star — Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old acting newcomer — was discovered after a large-scale talent search across India over more than 3,000 young men auditioned.  Lee said: “We got really lucky with the kid. He’s in every shot. Very difficult shooting. He never melted down, never got sick, never misbehaved, never got injured. He carried the whole thing.”

Life of Pi turned out to be a critics’ and consumers’ favorite, earning over US$609 million worldwide. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and won the Best Original Score. At the 85th Academy Awards it had eleven nominations and won four (the most in the event) including Lee’s second Best Director.


 

Regarding himself as the slave rather than master to his projects, Ang Lee gave his heart and soul to movie-making, where he managed to think the unthinkable (Immersive Digital), discuss the unmentionable (gay love, sexuality and desire), and film the unfilmable (Pi’s spiritual journey). “I never make movies because I’m doing a job; I do them because I’m doing something I like,” Lee told the Telegraph in 2012.

For Lee himself, the journey of exploration will continue. What might happen to the film industry after the technology breakthrough of Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? The answer is uncertain, as Lee admitted to Variety. “I’m nervous, because I don’t know in which way it will go. It’s difficult to change people’s habits. But I’m a little too curious. I’m not that young anymore, I don’t want to wait.”

* Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is slated to release on Veterans Day weekend on November 11.

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