Tomorrow is the release of Ang Lee’s 12th feature film, Life of Pi, which is based on the novel by Yann Martel. Lee has always been a fascinating filmmaker for me. The one thing that stands out most is his variety of projects. Every film he makes is in a different genre, even if the themes are similar (the most common being an exploration of unusual family dynamics). He’s done contemporary comedy, contemporary drama, an English period drama, a comic book-based movie, American films set in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, a Civil War drama, a World War II Chinese thriller, and a Chinese wuxia (martial arts and chivalry) film. One cannot simply deny the artistry that is on display in those films. I’ve actually had the honor of meeting him in person at the Museum of the Moving Image more than nine years ago (he even signed my program). For this appreciation, I will focus on the good films (I’m leaving out his 1992 debut feature Pushing Hands because it leaves a lot to be desired and 2009’s Taking Woodstock because it’s an extremely rare misfire for him). The films I will focus on are: The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil (director’s cut), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust, Caution.
1993’s The Wedding Banquet: Lee’s second feature, which he co-wrote with Neil Peng and James Schamus, centers on the story of a gay Taiwanese immigrant in NY who decides to marry a female Chinese immigrant in order to get his parents off his back and help get her a green card. Things fall apart when his parents (who don’t know he’s gay) fly in to hold a big wedding and after-wedding banquet. Featuring a talented cast that includes Winston Chao, May Chin, Ah Lei Gua, Sihung Lung, and Mitchell Lichtenstein, it would be the first of three films Lee makes about gay characters, was honored with positive reviews, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman: Co-written by Lee, Schamus, and Wang Hui-Ling, this film centers on a semi-retired and widowed hotel master chef and the evolution of his relationship with each of his three single adult daughters, building up to a surprising finale. Featuring a cast that includes Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Ah Lei Gua, and Winston Chao, this film was also critically acclaimed and would also earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (as well as several Independent Spirit Award nominations). An inferior remake, Tortilla Soup, would be released in 2001.
1995’s Sense and Sensibility: This adaptation of the Jane Austen novel centers on a widowed British woman and her three daughters in the 1800s after the bulk of their estate goes to the son of the late husband’s first marriage. The complicated love lives of the two eldest daughters, who are polar opposites, also come into play. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay), Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman, this critically acclaimed film became Lee’s breakout hit that brought him international fame and was nominated for seven Oscars (including Lee’s first nomination for Best Director).
1997’s The Ice Storm: Based on the novel by Rick Moody, the film centers on two dysfunctional Connecticut families in late 1973 as they try to deal with the political and social changes of the early ’70s. Their various forms of escapism include sexual experimentation, adultery, and alcohol. Featuring a terrific cast that includes Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Christina Ricci, this film was critically acclaimed (many felt it was Lee’s best film yet) but was not a box office success due to its limited release.
(To be concluded in: Ang Lee: An Appreciation Part Two)