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Retrospective: The Films Of Ang Lee

Indiewire By The Playlist Staff | Indiewire November 19, 2012 at 12:01PM

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.
15

"The Ice Storm"
"The Ice Storm"
"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 Creek" Katie 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
"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"
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
"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
"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]

This article is related to: Features, Ang Lee, Life Of Pi, The Essentials

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