Q&A Looking Back: Ang Lee’s Early Roots

Today is Ang Lee’s birthday. To celebrate, we have a special Q&A with Whitney Crothers Dilley, author of The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen, 2nd edition

Whitney Crothers Dilley’s 2015 book, The Cinema of Ang Lee:  The Other Side of the Screen, has been nominated for an award from the Modern Language Association. In addition, Dilley has been repeatedly honored (including both financial prizes and citations in Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who of American Women, and others) for her books Feminism/Femininity in Chinese Literature and The Cinema of Wes Anderson: Bringing Nostalgia to Life. She presently teaches courses in Comparative Literature and Cinema Studies in the Department of English, with a dual appointment in the Graduate School of Gender Studies, at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, Taiwan.

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Q: What do you consider to be Ang Lee’s greatest achievement as director?

Whitney Crothers Dilley: Ang Lee’s position in world cinematic history has been firmly established by his two-time win of the Academy Award for Best Director for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012). The earlier release of the Qing-dynasty martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 was also a stunning critical and commercial success, receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews and becoming the first Chinese-language film in history to emerge as a mainstream American hit. The film also spawned imitators hoping to capitalize on the new popularity of the martial arts genre, for example, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001, and was at that time the highest-grossing foreign language film ever produced in the United States, easily surpassing the record-breaking success of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997). In the same way, Brokeback Mountain’s frank treatment of homosexuality in a mainstream Hollywood film triggered a cultural phenomenon in America that still reverberates today. The film’s young cast of Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michelle Williams, all just in their twenties, were each nominated for Academy Awards in 2006, one of the youngest casts in history to receive such recognition. There has been an explosion of scholarship on Brokeback Mountain in academic circles, and the cultural impact of this film, thirteen years after its release date, has yet to be fully measured.

Q: Why is the “father figure” such an important role in Ang Lee’s films?

WCD: Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954, and was raised by a strict Confucian father, a widely-respected school principal at a prestigious all-boys high school, who trained both of his sons in the Chinese classics.  Lee, who did not have a predilection for academics, was a great disappointment to his father. This—the fear of disappointing one’s parents—contributes to the thread of anxiety and dramatic tension that underlies many of his films, especially the early Chinese “Father-Knows-Best” trilogy Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), as well as more obviously, Hulk (2003), Taking Woodstock (2009), and Life of Pi. Even Sense and Sensibility (1995) begins with the death of the father, Mr. Dashwood, whose absence affects the future trajectory of his family for the rest of the film. Lee wished to please his father as a good Chinese filial son, but failing the college entrance exam twice after choking on the math section, he took up the less-respected study of Theatre and Film at the Taiwan Academy of the Arts, where he first discovered he had an innate talent for acting and drama.  The acting profession was considered a somewhat shameful one in conservative 1970s Taiwan (akin to how vaudeville in the U.S. was seen as one step up from a life of debauchery and prostitution). After graduating, Lee was sent to the United States in 1978 to pursue further studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with his father hoping Lee would pursue a more scholarly field of study, perhaps even a Ph.D. It was not to be: Lee continued to follow his passion for theatre arts and then directing, and later earned a master’s degree in Film Production at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.  After graduation, Lee, who in 1983 had married Jane Lin, a fellow student from Taiwan, moved with his wife to a New York suburb (similar to the one portrayed in Pushing Hands). Lee searched unsuccessfully for work in the film industry while the family (Lee eventually had two children, Haan, born in 1984, and Mason, born in 1990) lived on Lin’s salary as a microbiology researcher. This situation, a husband living off a wife’s salary, while somewhat common in Western countries, is considered an embarrassment in Chinese culture—and Lee felt once again the inner sting of disappointing his own father.  Hard as it may be to believe, Lee spent six years, from the age of 31 to 37, unable to find work, living in the American suburbs and taking care of his children as a househusband.

Q: How did Lee finally break into the film business at the age of 37?

WCD:  At the end of 1990, the Taiwan national government hosted a contest to encourage local filmmakers, and Lee quickly wrote a draft of the screenplay Pushing Hands, which he felt would attract the attention of the judges because it dealt with the problems of a filial son and his father, a common trope in popular films in Taiwan.  At the last minute, Lee enclosed a second screenplay in the same envelope, a favorite project of his, based on a friend’s relationship he had once observed in real life: a cross-cultural gay love story entitled The Wedding Banquet. Amazingly, Lee’s screenplays won both the first and second-place prizes, and Lee was given financing by the Taiwan government to produce his first films (in partnership with James Schamus and Ted Hope at the newly-formed company Good Machine). Significantly, these first films would be the only two among Lee’s numerous feature-length works to have been written by the director himself.

Q: How do Ang Lee’s early Chinese trilogy films represent the genesis of some of Lee’s core ideas in his work?

WCD:  These films are often referred to as the “Father-Knows-Best” trilogy because they each explore the changing role of the Chinese father in the late twentieth century. Each film portrays the collision between forward-thinking children from the younger generation and their traditionally-minded parents as they confront changing cultural norms.  Moreover, the traditional Chinese father is played in each of these three films by veteran actor Sihung Lung, without whom, the director has said, Lee would not have been able to realize his vision for the trilogy, considering actor Sihung Lung, who died in 2002, the quintessential Chinese father figure. In Pushing Hands, the father’s alienation and loneliness are brought on by his lack of communication with his American daughter-in-law and brief estrangement from his own son. This reflects the loneliness and culture shock experienced by Lee himself when he first moved to America. In The Wedding Banquet, a young Taiwanese-American in New York tries to hide his homosexuality from his traditionally-minded parents, who continuously badger him to marry. The film contains nuances of Ang Lee’s conflict with his own father, a highly traditional man who had difficulty accepting his son’s choice to be a mere “entertainer.” This film, in some respects the most personal of all of Lee’s films (Lee has said he based the dialogue between Wai-Tung and his parents directly on his own interactions with his parents), ends with Lee thanking his father and mother—and his wife, Jane Lin—in the film’s closing credits. Both Jane Lin and Lee’s son Mason appear in the film, and even Lee himself has a small cameo as a guest at the film’s central wedding banquet. For his third film, Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee returned to his homeland of Taiwan to explore the changes being brought by globalization and Westernization on traditional Chinese culture, through the iconic narrative of three daughters and their chef father who has lost his sense of taste.

Q: How do these three early films relate to Lee’s later work?

WCD:  The central ideas in all three films—the changing role of the father, and (mis)communication between the generations, as well as the overarching concepts of gender, culture, and society (such as his early treatment of homosexuality in The Wedding Banquet, later explored in both Brokeback Mountain and Taking Woodstock)—are themes that show up as repeated motifs in Lee’s later work. While his first three films are deeply personal and contain clear autobiographical elements, his later films are almost all adaptations from novels or short stories, while still reflecting Lee’s strong focus on family relationships: Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk (adapted from Marvel Comics), Brokeback Mountain, Lust/Caution (2007), Taking Woodstock (adapted from Elliot Tiber’s memoir), Life of Pi, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016). Significantly, the success of Lee’s early trilogy attracted the attention of major studios in Hollywood, and the relationship among the three sisters in Eat Drink Man Woman (“What do you know of my heart?”) led Emma Thompson and other studio executives to seek Lee to direct Sense and Sensibility, his first all-English film—thus setting him on a career trajectory as one of the world’s most versatile and groundbreaking directors.

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