Ang Lee, Retrospective

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.

Lee’s latest, the long-awaited adaptation of Yann Martel’s “Life Of Pi,” again sees the director moving into new territory with an effects-heavy, 3D, visually extraordinary adventure that might be the director’s most spiritual film to date (read our A-grade review here). With the movie opening this Wednesday, and looking all but certain to win Lee his third Best Director Oscar nomination (and possibly even his second win), it seemed like a good idea to look over the director’s complete career to date. You can find our verdicts on the first 20 years of Ang Lee films below, and one can only hope there’s plenty more where they came from. 

Pushing Hands
"Pushing Hands" (1992)
Essentially unemployed for years after graduating from NYU, Lee finally got a break in 1990 after two of his screenplays, co-written with regular collaborator James Schamus, placed first and second in a competition organized by the Chinese government. Initially, they refused to fund the winner, "The Wedding Banquet," because of its gay subject matter, so instead "Pushing Hands" was the one which ended up in production. A gentle culture-clash comedy-drama, the story follows Mr. Chu (future Lee regular Sihung Lung), a t'ai chi instructor who leaves China to live with his son Alex (Bo Z Wang) and his neurotic writer wife Martha (Deb Snyder) in New York. It's a modest but sweet little film that pits Chu's traditional family-led values against the harsh, selfish world of the U.S., while also giving him a faltering romance with Taiwanese widower Mrs .Chen (Lai Wang). It is also very much a first film. Lee's direction is a bit scrappy, the script doesn't quite cohere, and while Sihung Lung is wonderful, carrying much of the film on his shoulders, Wang and Snyder feel somewhat amateurish. But still, it's intriguing to see where Lee began, and how the themes of much of his work are already in place so early on. [C+]

The Wedding Banquet
"The Wedding Banquet" (1993)
"Pushing Hands" won some acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival, but it didn't see the light of day in the U.S. outside the festival circuit until after the release of "Sense & Sensibility." But Lee didn't have to wait too long for his breakthrough in the States. He returned to Berlin the following year with the second of those two award-winning scripts with "The Wedding Banquet," which proved to be a serious crowd-pleasing hit, winning the Golden Bear. Forming the second part of his family values trilogy, it's got a premise that almost could have come from a mid-'90s mainstream rom-com. Gay couple Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) are happy in their lives, but Wai-Tung's traditional Taiwanese parents, oblivious to their son's sexuality, keep pushing for him to get married. To get them off their backs, he decides to have a sham marriage with Chinese tenant Wei-Wei (May Chin -- who's now a politician in China), who needs a green card. Inevitably, Wai-Tun's parents arrive to throw him the titular celebration, and things become increasingly complicated. Lee seems to be much more confident with actors, and virtually all the cast are wonderful, including a returning Sihung Lung. The comedy, both broad and subtle, is effective, and there's more going on under the surface, with a similar culture clash dynamic to "Pushing Hands" surfacing, argably in a more effective way. Lee has real love for his characters, letting them surprise the audience, and the whole thing is enormously likeable. It might not be the most ambitious film the director ever made, but it's where he really started to hit his groove. [B+]

Eat Drink Man Woman
"Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994)
The last of the trilogy that kicked off Lee's career, and his first film set entirely within his native Taiwan (as well as his second film in a row to earn a Foreign Language Oscar nomination), with Sihung Lung once again returning to the patriarchal role, "Eat Drink Man Woman" isn't perhaps as effective all around as its predecessor, but again demonstrates Lee as an empathetic, humanistic filmmaker. It also joins the ranks of "Babette's Feast," "Like Water For Chocolate" and "Big Night" as one of the great foodie films ever made (it was also remade as the Latino-flavored "Tortilla Soup" eight years later, to lesser effect). This time out, Lung plays Chu, a master chef at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, who lives with his three grown daughters: Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang). Each has a tangled love life, and is keen to leave the family home and a father who's long since thrown himself into his work at the expense of his family relationships. In terms of the filmmaking, it's easily Lee's most accomplished film to date, and it's a near impossible feat to watch DoP Lin Jong's work (his last collaboration with Lee) and not rush to the nearest Chinese restaurant afterwards. Bit while it's gently funny and touching, the characters aren't drawn with the complexity that you'd perhaps like, and it sometimes feels like an extended TV episode as a result. The structure too, which jumps between the family's regular Sunday meals together, is a little counter-intuitive to the storytelling sometimes. The performances are, as ever, marvelous, particularly from the ever-great Lung, and it's a perfectly enjoyable family drama. But better things were to come from the director... [B-]

Sense & Sensibility
"Sense & Sensibility" (1995)
On first glance, Lee was far from the obvious choice to direct an adaptation of the Jane Austen period classic, which had been penned by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Indeed, Lee had never heard of Austen, and later said he thought at the time, "I thought they were crazy... what do I know about 19th century England?" But it's easy to see what Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran saw in Lee off the back of his previous films, and the gamble paid off as "Sense & Sensibility" is one of the best cinematic Austen adaptations ever made, with Lee's sense of manners and family life, as well as his warmth and humor, shining through. Plot wise, the story follows Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie Francois) after their death of their father (Tom Wilkinson). Elinor begins to fall for longtime family friend Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), while the young Marianne is loved by the older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), but instead is smitten with the less-than-trustworthy John Willoughby (Greg Wise). It's staple Austen fare, but Thompson's screenplay is an exceptional adaptation, arguably funnier than the source material. And in Lee's hands, it never feels stuffy or dusty. The director brings out the heartbreak from the repression, thanks to an exceptional cast, not least his two leads in Thompson and Winslet (in her first role after breaking out in "Heavenly Creatures"). Almost single-handedly reviving interest in Austen (it was the first English-language film based on the writer's work for half a century), it doesn't exactly reinvent the medium, but it's hard to imagine a better take on the novel than what the director comes up with here. The Academy certainly agreed, giving the film seven Oscar nominations, and a win for Thompson for Best Screenplay, making her the first, and so far only, person to win both writing and acting awards. [A-]