Retrospective: The Films Of Ang Lee

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 19, 2012 12:01 PM
15 Comments
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"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" (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" (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

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15 Comments

  • carl grey | November 22, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    Ice Storm is my favorite film of his. Its very nuanced and subtle and even though Kevin Kline plays one of the most despicable characters of his career, he still manages to come out likeable and fully rounded. I love the scene when Joan Allen rides her bike to regain some of her lost adolescent wonder.

  • Kikuchi | November 20, 2012 6:39 AMReply

    It's Shiung Lang, not Sihung Lang.
    He was a terrific actor, so at least get his name right.

  • StephenM | November 20, 2012 1:10 AMReply

    Everything you said about The Ice Storm is true. I saw it recently, and I think it might be a masterpiece. I also like what you say about Hulk, which for all its flaws, is a fascinating and distinct film quite unlike any other superhero film ever made--it may not have a clear narrative arc, but it has stuck with me emotionally for a very long time.

  • Tom | November 19, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    Playlist really likes the word "fey."

  • Mark | November 19, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Ang Lee was not nominated for "Sense and Sensibility", it doesn't take a lot of effort to check imdb if you are not sure.

  • gert | November 19, 2012 2:12 PMReply

    Hulk gets an B ? hahahaha the incredible hulk should get a C and that was an oscar contender compared to Lee's film

  • MongooseCmr | November 19, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    I'm glad you didn't approve of Ride with the Devil. That film is a mess

  • kris | November 19, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    i think Lust, Caution underrated movie at least it deserves B...

  • Sven | November 20, 2012 1:28 AM

    I agree, it was a great and tragic movie.

  • MPS | November 19, 2012 1:21 PMReply

    Oh Jesus. "The sheepish refusal of topicality"? "Lee's obliviousness towards the legacy of queer cinema"? This is what amounts to new film criticism - one-dimensional, borrowed film theory peddled with a harsh, overstated, and unearned moralism. I assure you that Mr. Lee has forgotten more about queer cinema than Mr. Toro et al. have feigned to understand.

  • DG | November 19, 2012 1:15 PMReply

    My only thoughts are that both Brokeback and Ice Storm should be a+, I know you guys almost never break out that score but Ledger alone deserves it

  • kitcon | November 19, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    Incomparable in terms of range. Shows he's not afraid to stumble and not interested in perfecting a specific genre. What he hasn't tried are futuristic sci-fi - what would his Ep 7 look like? Or historical drama like the rumored Cleopatra.

  • Ivan | November 19, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    I remember very well Ang Lee not being nominated as a director for "Sense ans Sensibility" was the biggest surprise that year. So you should check the facts better next time. Lee was nominated only twice, and won for "Brokeback Mountain".

  • jimmiescoffee | November 19, 2012 12:20 PMReply

    'the ice storm' is awesome stuff.

  • Sven | November 20, 2012 1:29 AM

    I agree, glad to see it recognized here for its greatness! I saw the movie when it was released and never understood why it didn't get any major awards.

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