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Director of the diverse: a portrait of Ang Lee

Marty Schroeder | Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Through a decade-long career that has taken him from Taiwan to New York to Hollywood, Ang Lee has become one of the world’s most respected directors.

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954 and later graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts. His life then brought him to the United States, where he graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and then from New York University with an Master of Fine Arts degree. While at NYU, he was an assistant director on Spike Lee’s student film, “Joe’s Bed Study Barbershop: We Cut Heads” (1983).

After graduating, his directorial debut came with the film “Pushing Hands” in 1992. This film revolves around an ageing Tai Chi master who moves in with his son in New York. This causes conflict with the son’s novelist wife, who suffers writer’s block because of the presence of the father. The film focused on generational conflicts and metaphorically placed the conflict on the Tai Chi technique of “pushing hands.”

His next film, “The Wedding Banquet,” was released in 1993. It included the generational conflict of the first film but also presented Lee’s first film in which part of the conflict involved characters who are homosexual (he returned to this topic with “Brokeback Mountain”). A young homosexual Taiwanese man must fake a wedding for his conservative parents so that they do not discover he is living with his partner. This film was a critical success, earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. It also won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

After “The Wedding Banquet,” Lee completed the trilogy of films dealing with Taiwanese culture with “Eat Drink Man Woman” in 1994. This film garnered a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. Lee then went on to direct his first major Hollywood film, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” in 1995. This film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won the Best Adapted screenplay Oscar. With a major Hollywood film under his belt, Lee went on to create what many regard as his best film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000.

This film brought Lee’s love for the landscape shot to the fore, a technique he would later use when filming Western America for “Brokeback Mountain.” The plot was a complex weave of love, loyalty, want and loss. He was inspired by watching wuxiapian films, a Hong Kong style involving knight-errant characters and theatrics. In an attempt to connect with his heritage, he filmed parts of the film on the mainland of China, resulting in beautiful shots of deserts, mountains and forests, along with stunning fight sequences, choreographed by “The Matrix” maestro Yuen Wu-Ping. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” became the highest grossing foreign language film in history, nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and winning four Oscars, including Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film.

Lee then took a three-year hiatus before returning in 2003 with the comic book adaptation “Hulk.” It received some critical support but was accused of being too psychological and lacking in action. Then, in 2005, Lee returned to drama with “Brokeback Mountain,” adapted from the short story by E. Annie Proulx about two homosexual ranch hands who fall in love while working together in Wyoming. Though the topic of some controversy, Lee handles the topic beautifully, showcasing emotionally impacting performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and presenting gorgeous shots of the American West. This film has been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, along with a Best Director nod for Lee and a Best Actor nod for Ledger.

Lee is noted for his filmic diversity. He chooses wide-ranging topics, moving skillfully from a Jane Austen adaptation to a Hong Kong-style epic to a love story between two ranch hands. His topics also promote diversity and discussion, as most of his films are concerned with Chinese culture or homosexuality (or both in “The Wedding Banquet”). With his skillful use of the camera and the performances he is able to illicit from his actors, he is one of the best living directors in America.