[PROFILE] Ang Lee - Filmmaker Just Published His New Book
- Revealing the real Ang Lee
In his recently published autobiography, the director talks about
struggling to make it, his insecurities, and the new challenges ahead
By Yu Sen-lun
Sunday, Dec 29, 2002,Page 18
I can handle movie-making, but I cannot handle reality. In the world
of reality, I am always an outsider.
-- Ang Lee
In the last few months, most Taiwanese filmmakers have been
celebrating and looking back on two decades of the Taiwanese New
Wave, with frequent retrospective screenings and discussions of
Edward Yang's and Hou Hsiao-hsien's films taking place in Taiwan and
abroad. At the same time, another Taiwanese filmmaker has also been
looking back on his own filmmaking career. Ang Lee, equally famous
and a recent Oscar recipient, established his career 10 years after
his New Wave predecessors. Last month he quietly published his
autobiography, the Chinese title of which roughly translates as A
Decade of Cinematic Dreams (¤Q¦~¤@Ä±¹q¼v¹Ú).
As Lee is currently working on the post-production phase of his
latest Hollywood film, The Hulk, there has been little time for him
to promote the book. But he still managed to create a stir during
his one-day visit to Taipei in November, where fans waiting for him
to sign copies of his book packed the conference room at SPOT --
Taipei Film House. The 480-page book quickly sold over 10,000
copies, prompting Hou Hsiao-hsien, the owner of Taipei Film House,
to quip that he should consider writing an autobiography himself.
For the first time, the mild-tempered director with a bashful smile
reveals behind-the-scene stories about his movie dreams. How did an
obedient student and Mr. Nice Guy who grew up in a traditional
Chinese intellectual family, come to create such various and complex
stories on screen? How did Ang Lee spend the six long years as
a "house husband," just to develop scripts and wait for filmmaking
opportunities? What are his hidden sorrows and what dreams of his
have yet to be fulfilled after seven films (four in Chinese
language, three in English)?
"In Taiwan, I'm a mainlander. In the US I'm a Chinese and in China I
have to use a Taiwan compatriot's travel document. The problem of
identity and where are we going is always a question and [source of]
confusion for me and many Chinese people," Lee writes in his book.
Growing up in Tainan, studying film and then making his first
feature film in the US, Ang Lee's career has taken a very different
route from those of other Taiwanese filmmakers. This is one of the
reasons why Lee's filmmaking style differs so much from other
Lee was among the first to confront the question of cultural
identity, the complexity of which and the anxiety it causes he
explores in his first film Pushing Hands (±À¤â, 1991), a story about
an aging tai chi master who finds himself trapped in a foreign land
with his sons's family and American wife.
The movie was made in 1991, when the Taiwanese New Wave -- with its
realism, social criticism and poetic nostalgia for Taiwan's history -
- was still on the ascent. "When most filmmakers in Taiwan were
making avant-garde art-house movies, I made a traditional Chinese
family drama," Lee says in his book.
A Decade of Cinematic Dreams was ghost-written by senior journalist
Chang Ching-pei (±iè°»_) after three two-hour-plus interviews with
Lee in New York, Los Angeles and Taipei. "I asked him questions
endlessly, and he poured out his words endlessly in response. He
talked so much that he surprised himself," Chang said.
"When I was asked by Chang to do this book, I thought that, since
everything about me was already in my movies, there was no need
write a book," Lee says in his book.
"I'm not a good student. I'm the son of a high school principal. I
got married at age 30 and [we] had children, and then I began
raising the kids and taking care of the cooking while my wife worked
to support the family. This kind of life might be too boring to
write about," Lee added at his book-signing ceremony.
"But now that the book is finished, I feel [writing it] was
therapeutic for me. I'm very thankful to Chang for helping me look
back at myself and talk about things I usually tend to avoid or
deliberately forget, things like national sentiments, cultural
identity and my struggle with masculinity," Lee said.
In February of 1985 Lee had finished his studies at New York
University film school and was heading back home. "One night before
my luggage was to be shipped, my graduation film Fine Line won the
Best Film and Best Director awards at the NYU film festival. Agents
from the William Morries Agency wanted me to sign a contract with
them. They said if I stayed in the US there would be more
opportunities for me," Lee says in his book.
So Lee began writing scripts, adapting scripts, and co-writing
scripts with other new filmmakers. Lee recalls how difficult the
years after graduation were for him: "If a film company likes your
first draft, they'll ask you to rewrite or edit some parts, three to
five times. Two years later, these scripts either come to nothing or
need to continue developing. ... This is what they call the
`development hell of filmmaking.'"
Lee writes that on average it takes five years from the day the
first words of a script are written to the day when the shooting
starts, and that is only on the rare chance that a script manages to
get that far.
"During that time, my family's biggest luxury was eating at Kentucky
Fried Chicken," Lee recalls. "I tried writing film reviews for
Chinese papers, but only for two months. I guess that apart from
directing, I was incapable of handling others jobs. But during those
six years, my wife never once forced me to get a job," Lee said.
For this, Lee was once accosted by a friend who said, "How could a
man treat his wife like this."
Lee's next movie after Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, was a
sweeping success, garnering the Golden Bear award in Berlin and
creating a market for Ang Lee movies worldwide. The US$750,000 movie
earned US$32 million, making it the world's most profitable film in
"I get all these crazy ideas whenever I start making a film, and
these are often realized. Then I think, `If it's that easy for me to
carry out these ideas, I must have something inside.' And maybe
that's talent," Lee writes.
Lees autobiography chronicles in detail the making of each of his
seven films, from Pushing Hands to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Also detailed are his ideas, feelings and reflections on those
In one vignette, Lee describes Emma Thompson as the Queen Bee of
English actresses. "Being a director, I have never met an actor who
could give me so much pressure," he writes.
As for Hugh Grant Lee writes: "At first I couldn't figure out why he
was so naughty, and why he didn't stand where he was supposed to
when acting. Then I realized he didn't like to stand side-by-side
with other actors. As long as you put him in front of other actors,
he would listen to whatever you said."
Throughout his first-person account, Lee maintains a fluid and
modest tone, displaying a mild sense of humor and profound knowledge
of culture and history. He maintains this tone throughout most of
the book, with the exception of when he talks about the argument
over whether Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is authentically
"Some foreign critics think that they are Chinese film experts, and
easily label the film as an unauthentic Chinese martial arts films.
This may be [due to] their lack of knowledge, or simply their sense
cultural superiority. They think that they have the power in
cultural politics, and they can decide what is better for your
culture," Lee writes. "Why should Chinese martial arts stay in their
old place, on the level of B-movies? Should an authentic Chinese
movie always be raw, earthy, marginalized, artsy or oppressive? If
not, does this mean it's Americanized?"