With commercial cinema increasingly dominated by spectacle, the films of Ang Lee (b. 1954) remain engagingly human-scaled, plunging into the emotional turmoil among sets of intimately detailed characters. This emphasis on intimacy is the unifying element that links films set in 18th-century China, Georgian England, 1970s Connecticut and contemporary Wyoming. Lee is a protean director: although he recently won an Oscar for a 3D feature that relies on cutting-edge visual technologies, he built his reputation by re-introducing American audiences to melodrama as a vehicle for exploring the relation between society and the individual.
The itinerary of his career is a zigzag. His parents left mainland China for Taiwan in 1949; thirty years later, Lee departed Taiwan to study theater and film in the US. Despite the success of his 1985 NYU thesis film, it would be another six years before he made his first full-length work, Pushing Hands, thanks to Taiwanese producer Hsu Li-kong, who also produced the first two features by Tsai Ming-liang. The success of this film in Taiwan and on the festival circuit begat two more Taiwanese films, whose mix of “social satire and family drama” – as Lee put it – led to his being hired to direct the 1995 film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which in turn brought him to Hollywood. Lee’s strength has remained his ability to place audiences in close proximity to his protagonists’ inner lives.
The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome Mr. Lee for the opening night of a weekend of films highlighting his early work and two overlooked films: Ride With the Devil and Lust, Caution. – JM, DP
Ang Lee will appear in person at the screening of The Wedding Banquetfor the opening night of the Boston Asian American Film Festival at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday, October 24 at 6:45.
Ang Lee's visit is co-sponsored by the CCK Foundation Inter-University Center for Sinology; the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), Boston; the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO, New York; the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies; the Harvard Film Archive; and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University.
Special thanks: David Wang, Jie Li – Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard; Anne Hung, Wen-chang Chen – TECO, Boston; Amber Wu – the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO, New York
Film descriptions by Jason Michelitch and David Pendleton
Directed by Ang Lee. With Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen
US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong 2007, 35mm, color, 157 min. Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles
Arguably Lee’s most challenging film, Lust, Caution explores a dangerous game of seduction, deceit and power in Japanese-occupied China during World War II, where a young woman in the resistance seduces a wealthy collaborator in order to lure him to his assassination. But things quickly become complicated as the lines between predator and prey, love and lust blur in this adaptation of a 1979 novella by Eileen Chang, whose fusion of melodrama and the psychological complexity of modern literature profoundly influenced Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema. As in Brokeback Mountain, the lovers in Lust, Caution are caught in a time and place that makes their passion not only dangerous but unsustainable.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Lung Hsiung, Wang Yu-Wen, Wu Chien-lien
Taiwan 1994, 35mm, color, 124 min, Mandarin with English subtitles
Following Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman is the final and culminating film of Lee’s so-called “father trilogy.” In each film, a Chinese patriarch is forced to confront the conflict between tradition and modernity head on because of his children. Here that conflict takes a variety of seriocomic forms in the lives of the patriarch’s three daughters. As the film’s title suggests, food provides a recurrent motif to anchor the film’s narrative sprawl; the creation and consuming of meals that bring the family together as it threatens to break apart. Like his countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, Lee demonstrated his mastery of the feature film by branching into complex narrative structures with parallel plots and multiple protagonists.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Zhang Ziyi, Cheng Pei Pei
China/Taiwan/Hong Kong/US, 2000, 35mm, color, 120 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
In the semi-mythic China familiar from the swordplay martial arts genre, the theft of a treasured sword sets in motion a dizzying series of plots and counterplots involving warriors, thieves, aristocrats and assassins, with a pair of love stories at the film’s center. Lee renews the wuxia genre simply by taking it seriously, hearkening back to King Hu’s classic work that imbued the wuxia film with realism and a stylized but restrained visual style. As in Hu’s films, the women are at the center of the story, in the fight scenes as well as the love scenes. The beauty and skill of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were perhaps best appreciated in the US, where it encouraged a serious reconsideration of the martial arts genre as a whole.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver
US, 1997, 35mm, color, 113 min
As meticulously as his other films recreate Regency England, Civil War–torn Missouri, and China under the Qing Dynasty, The Ice Storm captures in detail and spirit the suffocating malaise of the American suburbs in the early 1970s. Two neighboring families, the Hoods and the Carvers, become psychologically and sexually intertwined as representatives of a cognitively dissonant society in the process of absorbing the cultural revolution of the ‘60s into a conservative retrenchment of bourgeois norms. Free love is bleakly transmuted into furtive extramarital affairs and joyless “key parties” for adults, while their children fumble and fondle one another in desperate pubescent exploration. Adapted from Rick Moody’s novel by Lee’s frequent scriptwriter/producer James Schamus, this is one of the most aesthetically and emotionally successful dramas of the 1990s, the remarkable cast delivering subtle, human performances to match Lee’s masterfully subdued and controlled cinematic tone.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Lung Hsiung, Bo Z. Wang, Deb Snyder
Taiwan/US 1991, 16mm, color, 105 min. English and Mandarin with English subtitles
Produced by Taiwan’s state-run Central Motion Picture Corporation but shot entirely in upstate New York with a primarily American crew, Lee's debut feature immediately establishes his identity as a transnational filmmaker. When an elderly grandfather emigrates from China to Westchester to live with his son, his white American daughter-in-law Martha and their son Jeremy, the family struggles to relate to one another across generational and cultural divides. This family melodrama introduces themes that will recur throughout Lee’s career: the search for identity at the intersection of tradition and modernity, and an ambivalent connection with a flawed and at times destructive father figure. This film is the first of Lee's script collaborations with James Schamus, who would go on to produce eleven of Lee's twelve features, and write or co-write nine of them, becoming an essential part of the director’s vision and voice.
Directed by Ang Lee
US 1985, digital video, color, 46 min
Lee’s award-winning thesis film for NYU parallels a young man running from the Mafia and a young woman hiding from the INS, and its blend of the comic and the melodramatic sets the tone for the first feature films to follow. The title refers to Manhattan’s Canal Street, which separates Chinatown from Little Italy.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel
US 1999, 35mm, color, 138 min
A harrowingly personal look at life on the fringes of the Civil War, this revisionist Western marks Lee’s first foray into action filmmaking, while retaining the humanistic sense of family drama that marks his four previous films. Following a group of young Missouri men who become unofficial guerilla fighters in the War Between the States, Ride With the Devil tracks their dark journey into the horrors of war, as their seemingly righteous desire to defend and avenge their countrymen devolves into the nihilistic violence of the infamous Lawrence Massacre. Based on Daniel Woodrich’s novel Woe to Live On, James Schamus’ screenplay eschews schematic relationships between characters, instead presenting complex sets of alliances, antagonisms, betrayals, and affections. Coolly received or overlooked altogether upon its initial release, the film has been critically resurrected as one of Lee’s most underrated and intense pieces of cinema.