Oscar Profile #126: Ang Lee

ang leeBorn October 23, 1954 in a southern agricultural county of Taiwan, Ang Lee was brought up in Chinese culture and the arts, especially calligraphy. After serving compulsory military service in the Republic of China’s army, Lee went to the U.S. to study at the University of Illinois at Urbania, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in theater in 1980. He met his future wife, Jane Lin, a fellow Taiwanese student, there. After graduation he attended NYU where he earned an MFA in film production. Married to Lin in 1983, he was a stay at home husband and father to their two American born children throughout the remainder of the decade while his wife, a molecular biologist, supported the family.

In 1990 he submitted the screenplays for Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet to a competition sponsored by Taiwan’s Government Information Office. They came in first and second, respectively and were filmed in that order.

Those two films and his third, Eat Drink Man Woman, all dealt with traditional values, modern relationships and family conflicts and are known as Lee’s Taiwan trilogy. Pushing Hands opened in Taiwan to great acclaim in 1992, but was not released in the U.S. until the subsequent two films had won worldwide acclaim and had been nominated for Oscars for Best Foreign Film in 1993 and 1994, respectively.

In 1995 he proved his versatility with a wildly successful film version of Jane Austen’s very British Sense and Sensibility for which he received his first DGA nomination. The film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, but Lee was surprisingly left out of the nominations himself.

In 1997 he proved himself adept at presenting life in 1970s suburban America in The Ice Storm which received numerous awards recognition but nothing for Lee. Two years later he directed the western Ride With the Devil for which he received generally good notices, but no awards traction.

Embracing his love of Chinese culture and myth, he directed 2000’s worldwide hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which became one of the rare films nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film in the same year. Lee finally received his first Oscar nomination for directing.

His next film, 2003’s Hulk was universally panned, but he bounced back with 2005’s Brokeback Mountain for which he received numerous awards including his second Oscar nomination for directing and his first win.

2007’s Lust, Caution received respectable notices but not much in the way of awards. 2009’s Taking Woodstock was generally regarded as a disappointment.

The long in gestation Life of Pi, on which Lee worked for four years finally hit theaters in late 2012 to rave notices and strong box office, for which Lee received his third Oscar nomination for directing and his second win.

The 58 year-old director’s next project will be the pilot episode an FX Cable TV drama called Tyrant.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993)

Lee’s middle film of his Taiwan trilogy and the first to be released in the U.S. was filmed largely in NYC. It also pre-dates Brokeback Mountain by a dozen years as Lee’s first gay love story, and a very funny one at that.

Mitchell Lichtenstein is forced to move out of the home he shares with his partner, Winston Chao when Chao’s Taiwanese parents (Sihung Lung, Ya-lel Kuel) come to town to attend Chao’s sham wedding to tenant May Chin. Much of the comedy revolves around Lichtenstein’s inability to understand Chinese and Lung and Kuel’s inability to understand English. Lung, who played equally memorable characters in Lee’s Pushing Hands and Eat Drink Man Woman is wonderful as the traditionalist father who is not as dumb as he pretends to me.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995)

More praise was heaped on screenwriter-star Emma Thompson, who won the film’s only Oscar out of seven nominations for her screenplay, than Lee who was thought at the time to be an odd choice for directing a film from a Jane Austen novel. He wasn’t at all. The film, which deals with life in a rigid culture, early 19th Century British society, was perfectly in Lee’s wheelhouse of films about making changes within such cultures.

Everything in the film works from its Oscar nominated cinematography, costume design and score to its non-nominated sets and editing to the marvelous acting of Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Thompson’s future husband, Greg Wise, all under Lee’s astute direction.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)

Any lingering doubts that Lee was a master filmmaker were dispelled with this soaring action adventure drama, a sophisticated big-budget film that celebrates Chinese martial arts like nothing audiences had seen before.

The sword fight above the tops of the bamboo trees simply has to be seen to be believed. The story about a stalwart hero (Yun-Fat Chow) and two equally brave women (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi) struck a chord with audiences world-wide. Although most audiences first saw the film in the U.S. with subtitles, it has become equally popular in its DVD dubbed version.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

Winner of 94 international awards and the odds-on favorite to win the year’s Best Picture Oscar, the film’s shocking failure to win that award can be seen as either the Academy’s refusal to be told by critics what the year’s best film is, something they’ve repeated several times since, or a sign that the old-timers in the Academy need to get their heads out of the sand.

Lee’s gay cowboy romance is a tale of woe as deep and timeless as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Lee’s Oscar winning direction is a good chunk of the reason why. He gets extraordinary performances from his four young stars, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway.

LIFE OF PI (2012)

Already the first and so far only non-Caucasian winner of a Best Director Oscar, Lee became the first to win two as well as the first to win for a film that is largely computer generated imagery (CGI) and animation. This is quite remarkable because the work of the director in such a film is easily blurred with that of the special effects wizards and the producers who may approve the effects and animation before a director is even attached.

Lee worked on the film for four years, but others worked on it longer while he was involved with other projects. Still, even if all he did was direct the human actors, there is enough genius in that to be worthy of an award as he has high school student and first time actor Suraj Sharma brilliantly interact with a tiger, a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena on a lifeboat in the film’s most incredible sequences. The tiger and the hyena were real in several shots. Only the zebra and the orangutan were totally CGI.

ANG LEE AND OSCAR

  • The Wedding Banquet (1993) – Nominated Best Foreign Film
  • Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) – Nominated Best Foreign Film
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Nominated Best Film
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Nominated Best Director
  • Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Oscar = Best Director
  • Life of Pi (2007) – Nominated Best Picture
  • Life of Pi (2012) – Oscar – Best Director

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