Masters of Cinema : Ang Lee

                            At the beginning of Ang Lee's "Ice Storm" (1997), one of the central characters, Paul Hood reflects on the nature of the family and its place in the world: "Your family is the void you emerge from and the place you return to when you die. And that's the paradox. The closer you are drawn back in, the deeper into the void you go." The paradoxical permanency of the family is a central tenet of Ang Lee's work. He has often referred to himself as 'a film-maker who does family dramas.' Critically and commercially successful both in the west and his native Taiwan, he is the only director to have two Golden Bear awards  and an Oscar, and is a popular presence at other film festivals around the world.

                         To date, Lee's films can be divided into two seemingly different types. Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, referred to by the director as his 'Father Knows Best' trilogy, were all Taiwanese co-productions. Combining social comedy and light drama, their success paved the way for his more larger budget, films like "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", "Hulk" and "Life of Pi." In contrast to his earlier work, "Sense and Sensibility", "The Ice Storm" and "Ride The Devil", occupy a territory that is termed as the "cinema of quality", part of that body of "classy" Hollywood movies that borrows its middlebrow legitimacy from its literary ancestry. The two periods of Lee's career share an interest in the potentially transgressive situations at the heart of family life, be it the simple act of leaving home or surviving on the unmerciful ocean, or the emotional ravages of civil war.

Society and Cultural Attitudes

                    Lee's films attempt to analyze the social order of each given society, whether based on ethnicity, sexuality, age or class, within the context of his own distinctive form of family drama. In interviews, Lee emphasizes the cultural diversity of his background, which has had a profound effect upon his work: "I talk English and turn around and speak Chinese to someone else. It's hard for us to look at a specific event from an American or a Chinese or even an Asian-American point of view. It's always a mixture."

                  Ang Lee's first three films use the collision of differing cultural attitudes to sexuality and age to expose the cracks in the veneer of the apparently stable family structure. The most example of this approach can be found in Eat Drink Man Woman. Lee's only film to be set in Taiwan, it centers on the seemingly traditional relationship between a widowed master chef and his three grown-up daughters. Tracing the breakdown of the Chu family as daughter leaves home to build a life or family of her own, the drama slowly builds up to the climactic family dinner where Mr Chu reveals a secret that irreversibly changes the future of the family, and each member's relationship with one another.

                Oscillating between domestic farce and a more serious rumination on the loss of the traditional values held by Mr Chu, the film ends with the recognition that each individual and his/her values are as important as those of the family. Eat Drink Man Woman follows Lee's first two films in using the traditional Chinese archetype of the father figure as the focal point of the drama. All three films scrupulously poised between celebrating and chastising our modernity for its loosening of the ties that bind.

               In Pushing Hands, the father travels from Taiwan to live in his son's house, but is eventually forced to find his own accommodation because the family ties which existed in his homeland are considered less important in America. Similarly, in The Wedding Banquet. Gao's parents return from New York to their home in Taiwan having reluctantly accepted their son's homosexuality. At the end of both films, there is note of regret that acknowledges what has been lost in order for modernity, and the new set of values accompanying it, to survive.

             Mr Chu's struggle to adapt to the changing world is echoed by Ben Hood, the central patriarchal figure in Lee and Schamus' adaptation of Rick Moody's "Ice Storm." The Hoods, a seemingly perfect image of the all-American family, gather together for Thanksgiving Dinne, and Ben announces that 'it's great that we can all be together', asking daughter Wendy to say grace. Instead, she offers a petulant criticism of her parents' values. One of the many scenes of domestic strife in the film, Wendy's comments chip away at her family's facade to reveal that the Hoods' have not been together for a very long time. Over the course of the weekend, this facade will crumble entirely. 

Crumbling Family Values

             The Ice Storm is a caustic account of 1970s' American society gone awry, focusing on two families, the Hoods and the Carvers. In exploring the generational differences between the characters, it looks back to themes raised in Lee's earlier films. However, the tone is more sombre, particularly in the way the film questions the adults' responsibility both for their own behavior, and for that of their children. Their apparent unwillingness to assume any responsibility has resulted in the increasing gulf between and within generations. Ultimately, it takes the death of a family member to rouse these characters from their emotional sleepwalking, only to realize that any hope of reconciliation has long passed. 

              Unlike the vivid colors on display in Lee's earlier films, The Ice Storm uses a muted palette to reinforce the repressed emotions of these characters. Lee also makes good use of editing to interrupt the passionless exchanges between Elena and Ben as they prepare the Thanksgiving meal. Cutting between their conversation, shots of frozen food and the minutiae of objects that populate their household, Lee emphasizes the lack of emotion between the couple whose feelings for each other are colder than the outside environment. Lee is also more disposed to absolve the characters of their actions, preferring to place the blame on society. 

               A strong conservative vein could also be identified in Lee's Sense and Sensibility. The film's preoccupation with patriarchal power and the role of the family certainly echoes the themes of his previous films, in which he had more involvement than this. This film is also significant for its phenomenal critical and commercial success, earning Emma Thompson an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1996 and paving the way for the funding of Lee's subsequent films, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil. 

Complex Civil War Tale

               Based on Daniel Woodrell 'Woe to Live', Ride with the Devil is an account of the life of a German immigrant, Jake Roedel, as he travels with southern Bushwhackers during the American civil war, accompanied by Daniel Holt, a freed black slave. Whist not endorsing their racist attitudes, Lee adopts the perspective of the Confederate supporters, documenting the loss of tradition in the face of modernization, this time enforced by the Unionist government. Although thematically linked to Lee's earlier work, the film differs in its emphasis on the physical, as well as the emotional drama. 

               Moments of intimacy are inter-cut with epic battle scenes between Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers (the bands of Unionist irregulars). The world of Roedel and his friends is a microcosm of the large battle being waged across the fragmented nation. The fight for freedom is reduced to the ambitions and hopes of individual men and women: Jake's dream of a peaceful life; his love's desire for a family; and Daniel's search for his place in the world amidst the ravages of a bloody war. 

Lee's Blockbusters

                  Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Lee's Academy Award winning movie, once again deals with the conflict between freedom of expression and the restrictions enforced upon individuals by societal conventions and traditional values. His first Chinese language film since Ear Drink Man Woman, it tells the story of four warriors whose attempt to achieve happiness in their emotional lives are thwarted by their allegiance to the honor of their craft and the complexities of the moral codes binding them to their social status. Lee interweaves breathtaking fight sequences with scenes of domestic drama, appealing to both mainstream and art-house audiences. A phenomenal international success, it is one of Lee's most enjoyable films.

                   Lee's next feature was the oddest super-hero flick "Hulk", where he approached the decades-old Marvel Comics character as yet another wanderer in the void. Lee's hulk has a troubled psychology, which is also a driving force of the movie, as he copes with traumatic childhood memories, tries for a romance with fellow researcher Betty Ross, and wrestles with forbidden impulses that explode into reality when his alter ego takes over. The most appealing factor of "Hulk" is its visual style: crafty use of split screens, unexpected scene transitions, and hallucinatory images. 

Emotional Dramas

                  Lee's next, Brokeback Mountain is adapted from Annie Proulx' 1997 story. The movie takes us to the year 1963, where two jobbing farmhands (Gyllenhaal and Ledger) take a gig tending sheep on a remote mountain. During their work, which extends to months, they form a bond that extends to a sexual relationship, but once the job is finished they return to their daily lives. However, the attraction remains, and it haunts them over their life for the next two decades. Heath Ledger, in one of his best performance, gives us a full-scale portrait of a man who is so imprisoned by tradition and inhibition that he can never break out. His underplaying served as an acknowledgment that, for some men, there is pain too deep for words.

                In Brokeback Mountain, Lee once again showed us that he is up to the challenge of exploring the turmoil of individuals who yearn for a love that lasts. Under his direction, everything is pitch perfect -- from the opening scene outside the rancher's office where the two cowboys wait to hear about work, Ennis (Ledger) slumping shyly behind his cowboy hat, Jack (Jake Gyllenhal) leaning against his truck with an almost brazen friendliness, to the heartbreaking scene when Ennis visits Jack's boyhood room, the storyline is pulled forward by a palpable and excruciating feeling of yearning. Brokeback Mountain earned Ang Lee a Academy Award for direction.

                 Lee's, controversial (sex scenes in this period piece are extremely graphic) and leisurely paced "Lust Caution" is another tale of forbidden love, but instead of cowboys, the lovers this time are opponents in deadly game of espionage. The movie starts in the year 1942, in Shanghai, where a society woman walks into a cafe and makes a phone call. In an emotional flashback, we find out that she is Wong Chia Chi (Tang), a drama student turned spy on a secret mission to facilitate the assassination of Mr Yee (Leung), a hated collaborator. Lee takes us on the most intimate of journeys inside the moral alleyways of a twisted political system that devalues the individual, and that's what makes this character study so intense and suspenseful.

                     Taking Woodstock in 2009, a vibrant and sympathetic portrait of the counterculture’s most visible evocation of the power of peace, love, and music, was both a critical and commercial failure. the central story is based about the legendary Woodstock Music & Art Fair, but it is also saddled with lot of side stories, which makes it meandering and unfocused. 

Visual Masterpiece

                    Lee's latest offering, the unfilmable "Life of Pi", based on the Booker prize winning Yann Martel's novel remains as one of his best films. Life of Pi documents the survival of a shipwrecked teenager named Pi Patel, stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a starving Bengal tiger. Lee's first foray into 3-D technology bestows the movie with gloriously rendered images. Whether observing a swimmer from below or surging through an astonishing nighttime typhoon, this extraordinary quest of survival remains as a feast of imagery for viewers.  

                 After looking at Ang Lee's filmography, a question raises: "Is there anything Ang Lee can't do?" In his incredibly varied filmography, Lee has steadily steered films that where neither light weight entertainment nor an Oscar-bait. He is rightly referred as "the most mysterious talent at large in American cinema."

Ang Lee - Senses of Cinema


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

A very informative and a well researched write-up that made be feel enlightened. Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon still remains an all-time favorite. Thanks for keeping us all engaged!!!

Maliny said...

Have watched Broke Back Mountain , which remains one of my favourites . Looking forward to watching this one too . Very well written review . .

Ritesh Agarwal said... write with such an authority

Arun Kumar said...

@Ritesh, Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting.