Friday, January 18, 2013
The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee
One of the most prolific filmmakers working today, Ang Lee is a filmmaker who is someone who has no boundaries and lots of imaginations into the films he makes. Whether it’s in period pieces, romantic dramas, stylish action films, or even something simple about family. Lee is a filmmaker who always find something that allows audiences to be engaged by whether it’s in an individual or a group of people. In 2012, Lee his twelfth feature film in Life of Pi that once again proved the filmmaker’s versatility as well as what he was able to do in creating something that seemed un-filmable. Already beloved by film critics as well as audiences, Lee is a rare filmmaker who can make films that can appeal to anyone no matter how big or how small they are.
Born on October 23, 1954 in Chaochou in the Pingtung county of Taiwan where his family had moved to the country following the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s. In his young life and through his family, Lee experienced the world of being an outsider as it would become one of many themes he would explore throughout his films. Through his formative years as a young man where he graduated at National Arts School in 1975, Lee would discover the world of films as he cited Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring as a key influence into his desire to become a filmmaker. After serving a mandatory military service for the Republic of China, Lee moved to the U.S. in 1979 to study theater at the University of Illinois. A year later, Lee went Tisch School of the Arts from New York University where one of his classmates was another budding filmmaker in Spike Lee.
The two Lees would work together where Ang Lee would serve as an assistant director for Spike Lee’s thesis film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads in 1983. Ang Lee would make his own shorts with 1982’s Shades of the Lake that won an award in Taiwan and then a 43-minute thesis film Fine Line in 1984 that won Lee NYU’s Wasserman Award for Best Direction as well as the attention of William Morris Agency. Through six years of unemployment where married molecular biologist Jane Lin and gained two sons in Haan and Mason, Lee spent his time writing screenplays with friend and budding producer James Schamus where they eventually submitted the scripts to a screenplay competition from the Republic of China’s Government Information Office. They would get the attention from Li-Kong Hsu who wanted to become a producer as he decided to team up with Lee and Schamus on making their first film together.
Lee’s first feature film would be the basis of a trilogy of stories relating to fathers dealing with all sorts of changes in their lives that is often tagged by fans in later years as the Father Knows Best trilogy. The first of which was a film called Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) that related to the art of tai chi. The film is the story about a tai chi instructor who moves to America to live with his son and his American wife as he deals with culture shock and the growing difference between himself and his son. The film’s subject of alienation and changing times would be something for Lee to explore as he would recall his parents own culture shock on their arrival to Taiwan from China as well as his own experiences when he first arrived in the U.S.
Lee decided to have the film be based in areas around New York City in its Asian communities where he wanted to maintain a sense of authenticity for the project. Notably as he wanted to see how Chinese/Taiwan immigrants would place themselves in a world that is completely foreign to them. For the lead role of Chu, Lee was able to get the services of famed Taiwanese character actor Sihung Lung. Lung was known primarily for playing criminals and other tough individuals through Taiwanese-based TV shows and films. Having retired by the early 1990s, the project would be something very different for Lung as he would become of Lee’s early collaborators.
Another individual would become one of Lee’s key collaborators along with James Schamus was editor Tim Squyres who would help create an air of style for what Lee wanted in some of the scenes involving Tai Chi. With Schamus and Squyres helping out, Lee was able to create a story that didn’t just explore a man’s struggle to deal with changing times not just the way American life is perceived but also in Asian-American places where the rules are changing and the old are unable to keep up with the fast pace of these rules. Even as Lee reveals the struggle for how young Taiwanese man try to uphold a sense of tradition in a world where tradition and values are meaningless.
The film was released in 1992 where in Taiwan, the film was a major critical and commercial hit as it received eight nominations from the country’s premier film festival. The film was also the springboard for Lee’s career as he finally achieved success as a filmmaker where he would be able to get the chance to create more films.
The Wedding Banquet
In the 1990s, there was a new wave of gay-and-lesbian cinema known as the New Queer Movement that featured the works of filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and many others where they provided new and unique stories about homosexuals. Though Lee wasn’t gay nor part of this new movement, he was aware of what was happening as he and James Schamus collaborated with Neil Peng on a script about a gay Taiwanese man who decides to marry a Chinese woman so she can get her green card as they later deal with his parents while his lover starts to feel left out.
One of the individuals who had helped secure funding for Tui Shou was Ted Hope who was becoming one of American independent cinema’s top producers as he helped secured more funding for the film to be based once again in New York. With Sihung Lung playing the supporting role of the lead’s father, the casting would be much more diverse as it featured a cast of Chinese and Taiwan actors as well as American actor Mitchell Lichtenstein in the role Wai-Tung Gao’s lover Simon. With Tui Shou cinematographer Lin Jong returning to shoot the film as he would be another of Lee’s early collaborators, Lee wanted to create something that was very different from his previous film by adding more humor to the story.
What Lee wanted to reveal was the complexity of a homosexual relationship and a man trying to stick to his own tradition by pleasing his parents while being aware that his father is ill. By marrying a Chinese woman, he can please his parents while the woman can get her green card to stay in the U.S. but its aftermath would prove to be troubling as all involving including Wai-Tung’s lover Simon would feel overwhelmed. What becomes more surprising is that Lee chooses to find a way for the parents to be involved more in the story where Mrs. Gao and the Wei-Wei character talk about the roles of women and the struggles they face while Simon finds himself becoming fascinated by Wai-Tung’s parents where the film has a very big surprise in the third act between Simon and Mr. Gao.
The film made its premiere at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival where it won the festival’s top prize in the Golden Bear. Months later at the Seattle International Film Festival, the film won the Golden Space Needle as it would become a major hit with critics as well as art house film audiences. The film would also receive Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film as it would later be cited as one of the key films of 1990s gay cinema.
Eat Drink Man Woman
After two back-to-back successes, Lee decides to return to Taiwan to complete his trilogy with Sihung Lung in a film that would blend not just comedy and drama but also go even further with his themes of repression and changing times. Entitled Yin shin nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman), the film explored the relationship of a semi-retired chef and his three daughters as they each go through their own issues set largely in Taipei, Taiwan. Writing with Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling on the script, the project would be far more complex than anything Lee had done previously.
With Lung in the lead role of Chu, the cast would largely consists of Taiwanese-based actors as Lee wanted to maintain a full-on Taiwan production though Tim Squyres was still on board as editor along with Lin Jong as the cinematographer. Notably as Lee knew that this would be a film about a modern Taiwan where East meets West where one of the daughters work at a Wendy’s while there’s a lot of things that are happening to show the struggle between old and new. Notably as the film features a character in the mother of Chu’s neighbor who had just come back from the U.S. where she hopes to connect with Chu with new ideas that makes him feel out of place as he feels more connected with his neighbor who is like a fourth daughter to him.
One aspect of the film that Lee wanted to differentiate with his previous projects is the fact that the film featured multiple storylines around its four key protagonists in Chu and his three daughters. The oldest is a schoolteacher that has become a Christian as she deals with heartbreak from many years ago as she’s being pursued by the school’s new gym teacher. The youngest is a college student who works at a Wendy’s as she is falling for her best friend’s boyfriend. Then there’s the middle daughter who, like her father, is gifted with cooking but has become an airline executive while having an unfulfilling affair with a former boyfriend.
The film also has Lee showcasing the world of cooking while there’s a storyline about Chu’s loss of smell as Lee goes to great lengths into displaying the meticulous process of how Chu prepares and cooks his food for these lavish dinners. Through Squyres’ methodical editing and Jong’s lighting, Lee would showcase a sense of style that he would refine that would show him not repeating himself visually but also find ways to mature more as a filmmaker.
The film was released in August of 1994 where it was a huge hit in Taiwan as well as an art house hit in the U.S. The film also garnered rave reviews as well as awards from the National Board of Review for Best Foreign Film along with a British Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film. The film would later be remade in 2001 by filmmaker Maria Ripoll called Tortilla Soup that revolved more on Latin American families.
Sense & Sensibility
After a trio of major successes, Lee was approach to helm what was at the time a very daunting project. Notably as it would be completely different from the films he had made previously as it would be in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. Lee wasn’t familiar with the stories of Jane Austen when he was approached by producer Lindsay Doran and actress Emma Thompson about helming the film. Thompson had written the screenplay for the film as Lee read the project where he found himself relating to the story about these two sisters and their mother who are forced to move to a cottage due to their snobbish sister-in-law as they deal with love and all sorts of things.
Though Thompson originally didn’t want to play the role of Elinor Dashwood, Lee felt that Thompson would be right for the role with a few changes to help make the story more accessible. For the role of Elinor’s younger sister Marianne, up-and-coming actress Kate Winslet got the part after a single reading despite some initial reservations from Lee as the rest of the cast began to fill up that would include such luminaries of the British film scene like Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Imogen Stubbs, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Jones, Hugh Laurie, and Imelda Staunton. With the exception of editor Tim Squyres, Lee would work with an entirely new crew for the film that included famed costume designer Jenny Beaven and music composer Patrick Doyle.
With revered American filmmaker Sydney Pollack serving as executive producer for the $16 million budgeted film as it was shot in location in Britain. The place seemed very odd for Lee as the film was also set to be a 19th Century period piece. Despite his inexperience in handling a production as lavish as this with actors who are more trained in their craft. Lee was able to find his footing with his actors where Lee made suggestions that proved to be helpful for the actors. Even as Lee preferred to tell a good story rather than focus on the details of the period which he left towards some of the lesser crew members.
Lee would also do things to help play into some of the film’s melodrama such as the scene of Marianne walking in the rain where Winslet insisted on getting it right despite the fact that she eventually got sick after finishing that scene. Still, it gave Lee what he wanted for the story as well as getting the chance to create something that was different from most period films. Even as Lee was able to find a balance between humor and drama while making the film be more about the dynamics of these two sisters and their desire to find love.
The film premiered in the U.S. in a limited release in early December in order to build up buzz. Yet, the film managed to be a big hit with critics and audiences as it would be Lee’s most successful at that time. In February of 1996, the film made its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival where Lee won a second Golden Lion. The film also received numerous award nominations including two British Academy Award wins for Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet and an Oscar for Thompson’s screenplay. The film also introduced to Jane Austen to a new generation of filmgoers that inspired new films and TV mini-series based on Austen’s work.
The Ice Storm
The clout that Lee received for Sense & Sensibility allowed him to get more attention from Hollywood to helm projects that they feel could take them to the Oscars. Lee and James Schamus decided to re-team after a break where they discovered Rick Moody’s 1994 novel The Ice Storm. Intrigued by the book’s story about two dysfunctional families living in Connecticut during the 1970s where a lot is changing as teenagers discover the world of sex and other things. Lee decided that the film would be his next project with Schamus writing the screenplay as they collaborated with producer Ted Hope to get the film made.
With regular collaborators Schamus and Tim Squyres on board, Lee would also gain two important people who would become his collaborators during this period in his career. The first was cinematographer Frederick Elmes who was famous for his work with filmmakers like David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. The second was music composer Mychael Danna who was known for his collaboration with Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan. Elmes would not only provide Lee a much broader visual scale that Lee was craving for but also to help create textures with the photography to capture the landscape of New England. Danna provided Lee with an unusual score that deviated from most traditional film scores that relied on orchestras.
For the casting, Lee was able to get the services of revered American actors like Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, and Joan Allen along with up-and-coming actors like Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes and child stars like Christina Ricci, Adam Hann-Byrd, and Elijah Wood. Notably as the child actors had become teenagers where their characters would behave in a manner as Lee found a sense of realism in their performances. Despite the fact that Lee had no knowledge of life in 1970s America during the time of Richard Nixon, he was able to find ideas through magazines as the actors also used the magazines as references in the approach for their characters.
Lee also wanted to maintain a sense of atmosphere into the direction where he would replicate scenes of both Joan Allen and Christina Ricci’s characters riding their bikes down a hill just so the former can relive a part of her childhood. For the film’s third act where a lot happens during this ice storm, a lot happens where Kevin Kline and Joan Allen go to a party which is revealed to be a key party. Christina Ricci and Adam Hann-Byrd begin to explore sex while Tobey Maguire goes to a party in the hopes to score with Katie Holmes. Yet, the most interesting part of the film involves Elijah Wood’s Mikey who ventures around outside to see the ice storm happening as it would later play into the film’s tragedy.
Since the film also played to the world of family dynamics and repression, Lee wanted to incorporate things where the adult characters are clearly starting to unravel by their surroundings and lifestyle. Notably Kevin Kline’s Ben who has an affair with Sigourney Weaver’s Janey character as their children are starting to explore the world of sex. Allen’s Elena character finds herself become unsatisfied with the role of the housewife as she seeks other things to break out only to be surprised by things in her own marriage. Yet, the ice storm that happens would become something where every character in the film faces something as the film opens and ends with the Hood family waiting for Maguire’s Paul to return from the party at New York City.
The film premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival where it won the festival’s screenplay prize to James Schamus while the film was well-received at the festival. The film was released in the fall of that year in the U.S. where despite rave reviews from film critics, the film only made nearly $8 million in the box office against its $18 million budget in its limited release. Yet, the film would recoup its losses through home video rentals and releases where it would later be released in the prestigious Criterion Collection in a special edition 2-disc DVD set in 2008.
Ride with the Devil
Through the critical acclaim Lee had received for The Ice Storm, he, Schamus, and producer Ted Hope decided to collaborate on another project about America in the past. This time around, it would be in an adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On about guerilla fighting in the American Civil War. Schamus would use the book as the basis for a new script that would be re-titled Ride with the Devil. The project would revolve the lives of Bushwhackers serving for the Confederate army as they fight the Union through unconventional tactics while facing all sorts of prejudices and such as they later befriend a young woman.
With Lee and his collaborators set to take part on this very ambitious project that would have a budget of $38 million, the production was set in parts of Missouri as well as locations nearby Kansas City to maintain a sense of authenticity as the story was set in Missouri. With the help of production designer Mark Friedberg, Lee was able to get what he wanted in terms of period staging while didn’t want to make it too pretty with most period films set during the American Civil War. Even as Lee wanted to maintain that sense of ruggedness that the characters ventured to as they often lived in the woods.
With Tobey Maguire of The Ice Storm playing the lead role of the German-American Jake Roedel and Tom Wilkinson from Sense & Sensibility in a small supporting role as Orton Brown. The film’s cast would consist of several up-and-comers that Lee wanted at it included Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Guiry, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jonathan Brandis, and Jim Caviezel as well as American folk-pop singer Jewel. Lee wanted the casting to be unique as it revolved around a group of young men fighting the Civil War for the South where included some strange dichotomies that included slaves fighting for the South where Jeffrey Wright’s Daniel Holt character was a man who is very loyal to his master.
While the film was presented visually as a war film of sorts, Lee wasn’t that interested in exploring the world of combat as he wanted to maintain an intimacy by making the film be more about friendship and loyalty. Notably the building friendship between Roedel and Holt as they’re considered outsiders who are fighting for the South where they often have to deal with certain prejudices for who they are. Even as Roedel had to do right by being there for Jewel’s Sue Lee Shelley who had an affair with Roedel’s friend Jack Bull Chiles that spawned a child. It would lead both Roedel and Holt to make decisions as they’re aware that the war they’re fighting for is over.
Though Lee’s original cut nearly reached towards two-and-a-half hours, the director did decide to trim 10 minutes for the film’s limited theatrical release in November of 1999. Though reviews were well-received, the film’s limited release didn’t do well to help the film break out to more theaters as it was a major box office flop grossing more than $600,000. Still, the film would later find an audience through the release of home video rentals and releases as it would often be considered Lee’s most overlooked film. In 2010, Lee released a reconstructed version of his original 148-minute cut of the film through the Criterion Collection in a special edition DVD/Blu-Ray release as some critics saw it as an improvement over whatever flaws the film had in its original release.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Following the commercial failure of Ride with the Devil, Lee decided to return to Taiwan as he reunited with his old producer Hsu Li-Kong who was interested in creating a project based on the world of traditional Chinese martial arts and chivalry films known as wuxia. The genre had been in decline during the 1990s as they were often big risks for studios who were more in favor of safer martial arts action films. For Lee, he knew that the wuxia genre can come back as he was a fan of the genre since he was a kid as he and Li-Kong decided to create the project that would resurrect the genre.
The project would be called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as it concerned two warriors who try to retrieve a legendary sword from a thief whom one realizes has skills that could make her greater. Yet, the warriors also deal with their own feelings for each other as well as a young woman who is set to be married as she’s in love with a bandit. The story carried themes that Lee wanted to tell as it fit in with the themes expected in the wuxia genre. Notably as it would be more than just some stylish martial arts film with elements of romance and adventure.
James Schamus, Wang Hui-Ling, and Tsai Kuo-Jung wrote the screenplay that was based on the Crane Iron Pentalogy novel by Wang Dulu that had the elements of what expected in wuxia. Notably as it would revolve around characters who are trapped by duty, lifestyle, or even by lack of knowledge. For Lee, he wanted to explore the characters as they’re dealing with guilt and loss while searching for some kind of hope. While the story would have elements of fantasy, Lee wanted to find a balance between fantasy and reality.
While Lee retained a lot of his collaborators including editor Tim Squyres and sound designer Eugene Gearty, the crew would be a mixture of American, Chinese, and Taiwan as it would be a co-production for the three countries. Notably in cinematographer Peter Pau, production/costume designer Tim Yip, and music composer Tan Dun. For the cast, Lee reunited with Sihung Lung as he gave him a supporting role as a mentor for the two leads while Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh played the leads in Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, respectively. With Chang Chen as the bandit Dark Cloud and Cheng Pei-pei as the villainous Jade Fox, the casting would also up-and-coming actress Zhang Ziyi who had previously appeared in Zhang Yimou’s 1999 film The Road Home.
The production was set largely in China around various locations as Lee wanted to create a film that had all of the attributes of the wuxia genre which included wide depth of field shots in locations and stylistic yet intricate martial arts choreography. Lee brought in the famed martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo Ping who had just gotten a lot of attention for his work in the Wachowskis 1999 film The Matrix. With Ping, Lee was able to create a martial arts style that wasn’t just intense but had an air of beauty where there’s scenes of the characters flying in the air as they fight.
Lee’s direction also had him creating moments that were intimate as well as dramatic as he definitely took risks with both Yun-Fat and Yeoh as neither of them had done a lot of work outside of action films. Still, they were able to create something that made their performances far more engaging than what many expected. Even as Lee would also employ humor in an elaborate action scene at a restaurant where Ziyi’s Jen character, who is revealed to be thief, takes down many opponents with skills as it showed that Lee was willing to put anything into an action scene that could’ve been silly or over-the-top but kept it simple and funny.
The film was released in Hong Kong on July 6, 2000 while its Taiwan premiere came a day later. The film was a major critical and commercial hit that did more than just revive the wuxia genre but also created a new wave of wuxia films to emerge. For the film’s U.S. release in December, it started off as a limited release but the film’s buzz went bigger than it expected as it became a major box office hit as well as one of the highest grossing foreign-language films in the U.S. The film would garner loads of accolades including many critics prizes, British Academy Awards, and four Oscars for its cinematography, music score, and costume design and for the Best Foreign-Language film. The film would become Lee’s most successful of his career as well as the moment that he would become one of international cinema’s new top filmmakers.
The Hire: Chosen
During a break from making films, Lee was asked by Tony and Ridley Scott to be involved with a project for BMW in making a series of short films revolving around a driver and his assignment in a different BMW model car. The project was called The Hire as Lee decided to take part in the story called Chosen. Written by David Carter, the short revolved around the unnamed driver who accompanies a holy Asian child to a sanctuary as he has to deal with enemies in a docking bay. With Clive Owen as the driver for the entirety of the series, Lee chose his son Mason for the role of the holy child as it would includes lots of action as well as bits of humor. The short was among one of the successful pieces for the series as it would also reveal what Lee would do next.
With a new wave of superhero films arriving in the form of franchises like the X-Men and Spider-Man as they’re raking up big box office numbers. One project that had been in development for many years was a feature film project on the Incredible Hulk. The story about a man who would become a big green monster whenever he’s angry due to an experiment he was apart of. It was something that many comic book fans wanted to see and with many people involved in the development.
Lee and James Schamus were finally involved in the project in early 2001 where Schamus would do rewrites for the film’s story as he decided to merge the villain Absorbing Man and Bruce Banner’s father into one character while wanting to explore the origins of how Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk. The writing took more than a year as Lee found the story more appealing as it alluded to the unique father-son relationship between Bruce and his father David. With buzz over Lee’s involvement for the project, many would hope that the film would do just as well as the X-Men and Spider-Man films as well as creating a franchise for the character.
With collaborators in editor Tim Squyers, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and sound designer Eugene Gearty on board for this ambitious project with a $137 million budget. The film would be the biggest project Lee was involved in as it would be massive not just in scope but also in the usage of computer-based visual effects in order to bring the Hulk character to life as famed visual effects guru Dennis Muren came on board for the project. While the film would have a strong supporting cast that included Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte as Dr. David Banner as well as cameos from the Hulk’s co-creator Stan Lee and actor Lou Ferrigno who played the Hulk on the TV show in the late 1970s. The role of Bruce Banner would go to Australian actor Eric Bana who Lee chose after seeing him in the 2000 film Chopper.
Shooting took place in locations in Arizona, Utah, California, and parts of San Francisco as Lee didn’t just want to make a typical superhero origin story as he wanted to do something that was much deeper. Through Tim Squyers’ editing, Lee decided to employ multiple split-screens to help tell the story as if the comic book was coming to life. Notably as Lee wanted to show Banner’s struggle with being the Hulk as well as the complicated relationship with his father who did early testing on him that would later play an impact into Banner’s transformation as the Hulk.
During the film’s post-production in early 2003, Universal Pictures released a 30-second teaser during the Super Bowl where the reaction was very negative over the film’s visual effects. Though they would be improved in time for the film’s release on June 20, 2003, the results divided critics and audiences. While some applauded Lee for his approach with the story, others criticized the film for being too dramatic as well as the visual effects. Despite making more than $245 million worldwide, the film was a major disappointment in the box office as it only grossed $132 million in the U.S. The reaction towards the film hurt Lee as he contemplated giving up filmmaking entirely until his father encouraged him not to give up.
In the aftermath of the lackluster reception towards Hulk, Lee was looking for another project that would be much smaller and wouldn’t require lots of visual effects or studio expectations. It was during this time that his longtime friend James Schamus had become the new head of a specialty studio known as Focus Features that was putting out such acclaimed films like Far from Heaven, Lost in Translation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Schamus was interesting in taking on a project that would prove to be risky as it would be in an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about the complex relationship between two men in the American west from the 1960s to the 1980s called Brokeback Mountain.
Gus Van Sant was involved in the development of the project in the early 2000s but dropped out as it wasn’t going anywhere. Lee finally got involved in the project with Schamus serving as a producer as Lee read the screenplay that had been written by famed American novelist Larry McMurtry and writer Diana Ossana. Though the world of homosexuality wasn’t new to Lee, the fact that the story was set in the American west from the 1960s to the early 1980s intrigued Lee. Notably as it would be set at a time when homosexuality was very taboo during that period, especially in a world like the American Midwest.
With the exception of James Schamus and sound designer Eugene Gearty, Lee would work with an entirely new crew as his regular editor Tim Squyres was unavailable at the time. Instead, Lee got to work with a crew who would help him realize his vision that included noted Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Judy Becker. Also on board for the editing was Geraldine Peroni who had been famous for her work with Robert Altman. Yet, just after filming had wrapped and assembly work had done in the summer of 2004. Peroni died as the film was dedicated to her as Lee got the services of Dylan Tichenor who had been known for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson.
For the casting, Lee decided to go for up-and-coming actors who were already creating buzz. Australian actor Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal got the lead roles of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, respectively while Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway would play their respective wives. The cast would also include Randy Quaid in a supporting role as well as other small roles for Linda Cardellini, Kate Mara, and comedy actress Anna Faris. While the film would span for 20 years, Lee didn’t want to take on a traditional approach to makeup or aging in order to focus more on the performances.
Shot in the Canadian Rockies in southern Alberta though film would be set in Wyoming, Lee was able to find a beauty in the locations as it would be place where Ennis and Jack were able to escape and express their love to each other. In their different home life where they later get married to women and have children as they live in different places. Lee’s theme of repression comes to ahead. Notably in a key parallel moment where both Jack and Ennis each have their own Thanksgiving dinner. Jack with his wife and son and her parents show a man just frustrated of not having a life with Ennis as he finally unloads on his father-in-law on how Jack’s son should be raised. For Ennis at his Thanksgiving dinner with his family, he is later confronted by his ex-wife over the fact that she knows that he is in love with another man where he is unable to control himself.
One aspect of the film that made the project more worthwhile was gaining the services of Argentine music composer Gustavo Santaolalla who would create a serene soundtrack that mixed folk and country into the mix. Notably as it played to the world of the Midwest America where Santaolalla used a lot of acoustic instruments to maintain that sense of ambiance for the lead characters with bits orchestral accompaniment. Santaolalla also was involved in the soundtrack as it featured an array of country music from artists like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris where it played to the world of love and heartbreak.
The film received a lot of skepticism over how it would be presented when the film was finally unveiled at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 2005. The response was overwhelming as it won the festival’s top prize in the Golden Lion as its subsequent film festival appearances later that year gave the film huge buzz. The film was given a limited release in December of 2005 where the film drew rave reviews while it became a huge commercial hit. The film would gross more than $178 million worldwide as it was considered a major landmark film not just for homosexual romance but also for the romantic film genre.
The film won many awards from many film critic’s associations including Golden Globe Awards and British Academy Awards. At the Oscars, the film was nominated for eight as it would win three awards for original score, adapted screenplay, and a Best Director Oscar to Lee. Yet, the film was also nominated for Best Picture where it lost to Paul Haggis’ film Crash as many believed that it was one of the most controversial wins of the Oscars. Still, the film’s success put Lee back on the map as well as citing him as one of the best filmmakers working today.
After a break and feeling elated over the success of Brokeback Mountain, Lee had the chance to take on anything he wanted to do. Lee decided to return to Taiwan for his next project as he was considered a hero in the country. It would be in an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s story called Se Jie (Lust, Caution) about a Chinese university student who becomes spy for the Chinese resistance where she seduces an agent working for the Japanese government. The project intrigued Lee as he wanted to do a thriller that explored a piece of history most people outside of China and other countries in Asia don’t know about.
With James Schamus on board as producer and co-screenwriter with Hui-Ling Wang, Lee also brought in collaborators Tim Squyres, Eugene Gearty, and Rodrigo Prieto on board for the project. The film would be shot entirely in Shanghai with some location shooting in Malaysia as Lee was given a $15 million budget to create a period piece set in the late 1930s to the early 1940s during the Sino-Japanese War and the early moments of World War II. Notably as it would explore how the Chinese try to overthrow Japan’s rule on the country as it was under control by the Japanese.
For the film’s cast, Lee definitely chose a mixture of renowned actors in the Asian film industry as well as newcomers. Notably as it would star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the role of Chinese agent for the Japanese in Mr. Yee and Joan Chen as his wife. For the lead role of the spy Wong Chia-chi, it would go to TV actress Tang Wei who was chosen after a huge audition process that involved 10,000 other actresses. Though Wei was from Shanghai, she had to learn certain dialects of the time as well as learn of how women behaved during those times.
While Lee wanted to focus on some of the film’s historical aspects, he was more interested in the relationship between Wong Chia-chi and Mr. Yee where they would have this very sexualized affair though Wong is really spying Yee’s activities. While there have been rumors on whether Leung and Wei had un-simulated sex in those scenes, Lee nor the actors would reveal anything about those rumors. It definitely raised interest for the film as it would also reveal that Lee was taking risks with this project.
The film premiered at the 2007 Venice Film Festival where it won Lee his second Golden Lion while garnering lots of acclaim from critics as well as being a hit in Asia despite its controversy as Lee did cut 9 minutes from the film to make it more available for a wide audience. The film was released uncut in the U.S. with a NC-17 rating where it only got a limited release. Though the American box office gross was over $4 million, it was considered a success despite the rating as it definitely gave more praise for Lee as it would eventually gross more than $67 million worldwide.
With two back-to-back acclaimed hits on his belt, Lee decided to steer away from serious-minded films for something very different. It would be in another adaptation in the memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life by Elliot Tiber and Tome Monte. The book told the story of how the famous 1969 Woodstock concert in Bethel, New York came to be and how it involved a young gay man who would play a key part into the concert’s organization. Lee was intrigued by the book as he showed to James Schamus who decided to write the screenplay while he and Lee decided to produce the film together.
While wanting to remain true to Tiber’s real life story that included Tiber trying to save his parents’ motel at the time, Lee went to upstate New York for shooting locations as he wanted to shoot nearby the actual site. With collaborators Tim Squyres, Eugene Gearty, and sound editor Philip Stockton on board as well as music composer Danny Elfman who collaborated with Lee for Hulk. Lee got the services of French cinematographer Eric Gautier for the project as Lee knew that the film wasn’t going to be a conventional piece as it would explore a young man trying to save his parents’ motel by having the Woodstock festival come to his town.
While the casting would prove to be very diverse as Lee was able to get Imelda Staunton from Sense & Sensibility to play Tiber’s mother. The cast would also include Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, and many others in supporting roles. For the lead role of Elliot Tiber, Lee made the unconventional choice in getting comedian Demetri Martin for the role. Since the film was largely told in Tiber’s perspective, there was a great difficulty into wanting to show the concert since Lee didn’t want to emphasize on the concert but rather on Tiber himself.
The film made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival where it good notices as it was given a wider release in the summer of that year to coincide with the festival’s 40th anniversary. Yet, the film drew mixed reviews from critics as some felt that Demetri Martin was not a good choice for the role while others weren’t happy about the fact there weren’t any scenes about the actual concert. The film was also a commercial disappointment as it only made over $9 million against its $30 million budget.
Life of Pi
While doing post-production on Taking Woodstock, Lee was given an offer to direct a project that had been in development for nearly a decade. It would be in an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi as it told the story of a young man who survives a shipwreck that left his family dead only to be on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The project had been in the works for years as directors like M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron were both approached to direct the film as they ended up turning the project down. In late 2005, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet was hired to helm the project as co-wrote the project with Guillaume Laurant as they were set to shoot in mid-2006. Instead, the project floundered as Jeunet eventually left the project to do Micmacs which came out in 2009.
After Lee decided to take on the project for 20th Century Fox, the film would mark the first time that Lee would do the film without the involvement of James Schamus though he was still able to get Tim Squyres, Philip Stockton, and Mychael Danna on board for the film. With producer Gil Netter to help Lee develop the project as well as screenwriter David Magee for the script adaptation, Lee would go on a search to find someone to play the lead role of Pi. In October of 2010, Lee chose Suraj Sharma after an audition process that included more than 3,000 young actors.
While the casting would included famed Indian actor Irrfan Khan as the older Pi as well as small roles from Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, and Tabu. The project that was originally set for $70 million was raised to $120 million largely due to the fact that Lee would have to use lots of computerized visual effects as well as visual effects in 3D. Still, Lee was able to take in his experience in wanting to present something that showed the advantages of what 3D could to not only enhance the story but show how it can be done without making it distracting.
While Lee would do a lot of location shooting in India and Taiwan with bits in Montreal, a lot of the film was shot in a soundstage with a water tank where the bulk of the story took place. While Lee knew that Sharma would have to do a lot of his acting alone on that set since a CGI tiger would be made, it would prove to be beneficial for Sharma as he would be able to create a performance that was engaging. Notably as it would play into Pi’s idea of spirituality as well as the world of loss that he deals with. During the shooting for scenes in Montreal with Irrfan Khan, Tobey Maguire was asked to play the role of a reporter but Lee felt Maguire’s presence would be distracting as he cut Maguire’s scene and re-shot it with British actor Rafe Spall.
The film was released in late November 2012 where it proved to be a surprise critical and commercial hit. Notably for the way Lee was able to create a film that contained lots of spiritual elements and made it accessible for a wide audience. The film would also gain loads of accolades as it got nominated for 11 Oscars including a Best Director nod for Lee and Best Picture. The film’s success affirmed Lee’s status as one of the most prolific filmmakers working as he showed no boundaries in what he could do.
Through the twelve feature films he’s made so far into his career, there is no doubt that Ang Lee is among one of the best filmmakers who is working at this moment. Whether it’s about sisters dealing with love, a father dealing with changes in his life, a family in turmoil over changing times, warriors dealing with their own feelings, a man becoming monster, two cowboys falling for each other, or a man going on a spiritual journey. There is always something Ang Lee would provide that would connect with an audience no matter how big or how small these stories are. Whatever he’s planning to do next, it will certainly be a film that will have something to offer for an audience. At this moment, there is no filmmaker who has both the ability to reach a wide audience while offering something of substance in any kind of story that is better than Ang Lee.
© thevoid99 2013
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Ang Lee is a miracle to me, there is no other directors in the world who can deal with the source material from both Orient and West.
I would rank some of his films as following:
3.Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
4.Life of Pi
6.Eat Drink Man Woman
7.Sense and Sensebility
8.The Wedding Banquet
10.Ride with the Devil
That's a good ranking. Here's mine.
Fucking fantastic write up man. I really do enjoy the hell out of your Auteurs series. Just looked at your Letterboxd rankings, and with the exception of me placing Brokeback first, I think we're pretty much in line.
@Alex-Thank you. I'm glad we're on the same page with Ang Lee.
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