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Retrospective: The Films Of Ang Lee

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist 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.
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"Brokeback Mountain"
"Brokeback Mountain"
"Brokeback Mountain" (2005)
Some would say the tone of Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” is elegiac, beautifully tragic and timeless, the time period of the '70s and '80s set aside to present a mild west where cowboys are forever retreating to explore their deep longing. Others would blast the sheepish refusal of topicality, given that “Brokeback Mountain” (which won Lee the Best Director Oscar) manages to be a watershed film in queer cinema without a character once uttering the word “gay.” Lee’s obliviousness towards the legacy of gay cinema does indeed lead to a narrative where one of the two men refuses to acknowledge their own natural orientation in favor of a single true love, one that follows the popular formula where homosexuals must always be punished in some ways for their identity. But it’s also impossible to miss how Lee shatters the hetero-normative idea of a bucking cowboy with beautiful, square-jawed Ennis, brought to life by a titanic performance by the late Heath Ledger. The legacy of this film amongst the simple-minded will likely turn to jokes and mimicry of Jake Gyllenhaal’s fey Jack Twist (an affecting turn unfortunately susceptible to casual mockery), but Lee lands a strong punctuation mark in a carnival sequence where Ennis defends his family from a couple of drunken hooligans, displaying protective fury before basking in an all-American tableau of his eyes hidden underneath a cowboy hat, fireworks blasting in the background. [A-]

Lust Caution
"Lust, Caution" (2007)
While it won him his second Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in two years, "Lust Caution," Lee's return to Chinese-language filmmaking, ultimately proved to be one of the more divisive films of his career, even aside from the controversy resulting from its semi-explicit sex scenes. A wartime thriller owing more than a little to Hitchcock's "Notorious" in its premise, it follows Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a student in Hong Kong who becomes involved in the resistance against the Japanese invasion. Four years later, in Shanghai, she's tasked with seducing senior collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) as part of an assassination plot. Visually, the film is terrific, with fine period detail and wonderful photography from "Brokeback Mountain" DoP Rodrigo Prieto. But the film is hampered by the indulgence that a success like "Brokeback Mountain" often brings, mostly spinning its wheels for the first hour of a luxurious 160-minute run time. And for all of the supposedly boundary-pushing sex scenes, the central romance, and the characters living it out, feel a little thinly drawn, Lee's pristine filmmaking can never quite scratch the surface of his story, and it feels curiously distant as a result, although the ending packs an undeniable punch. It's a handsome and absorbing film, but one easier to admire than to really like. [C+]

Taking Woodstock
"Taking Woodstock" (2009)
Overlooked upon its initial release, "Taking Woodstock" is one of Lee's most purely enjoyable movies – part coming-of-age comedy, part dramatic historical recreation, all LSD-tinged fun – mixing the director's technical playfulness with genuine emotional underpinnings. Comedian Demetri Martin stars as the kid who brought Woodstock to his small town in upstate New York (depending on whose account you believe), and Lee wisely chooses to center the movie around Martin's family motel and not the concert. In fact, you never see one performance, which is sort of a running joke that the Martin character can never make it to see any music, but is also an ingenious way of covering material that has already been analyzed, documented, and dramatized to death (and one suspects, helpful when it comes to the budget). Lee gives shout-outs to the original Woodstock documentary and iconography from the concert (including the couple from the VW van), creating a freewheeling, goofily enjoyable atmosphere for his crazy cast of hippie characters (including Liev Schreiber as a transvestite and Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam vet). "Taking Woodstock" is as buoyant and bubbly as "Brokeback Mountain" was heartbreaking and bleak. The music, of course, is great, and augmented by a lovely, twangy score by Danny Elfman. Just because this is one of Lee's "minor" efforts, and is a little too breezy and congenial for some tastes, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. [B-]

Thoughts? What do you think of Lee's oeuvre and his eclectic career? Is there a uncharted direction you'd like to see him go? Weigh in with your own thoughts and favorites in the comments section below. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor and Gabe Toro

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


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