[PROFILE] Ang Lee - Director
- Ang Lee: Tone Poet or Hitmeister?
Those who know Ang Lee as the Oscar-winning director of Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) are surprised to learn that he had built
a golden reputation on fussed-over social satires of gay life (The
Wedding Banquet, 1993), food and family life (Eat Drink Man Woman,
1994), Victorian love (Sense and Sensibility, 1996), Watergate-era
suburban mores (The Ice Storm, 1997), and a Civil War drama (Ride
with the Devil, 1999).
Poet or Hitmeister?
A resume like that might damn Lee as an artiste who lucked into
a box office hit. Hardly. He and writing partner James Schamus
adapted CTHD from a segment of a Chinese pulp serial novel, the kind
read by the pimply nose-pickers who also buy lots of movie tickets.
Lee wanted Jet Li in the lead in hopes of tapping the kung-fu craze.
Li said no, forcing Lee to settle for Chow Yun-Fat, scale back the
fight scenes, add some romance and brace for arthouse hell.
Any doubt about Ang Lee's blockbuster aspirations will disappear
by the summer of 2003 when Universal releases his next directorial
gig -- a big-bucks adaptation of the Hulk, a Marvel Comics hero with
emotional and dermatological issues. The big green guy should make
Lee a big green guy as well. Whether Lee's status as a tone poet
will survive the adventure will depend on how much shading he can
pile on the movie without burying its kiddie appeal. And this time
he won't have the appeal of the kung-fu genre to provide covering
Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954. His father was the
principal of his highly-ranked high school and wasn't happy when Ang
failed the college boards and decided to go to Taipei to study
theater and cinema at the Academy of Arts. He graduated in 1976. By
1978 he was married to a medical researcher willing to support him
while he earned a B.A. in drama at the University of Illinois. He
then went to NYU to earn a masters in film directing. For the next
six years he became a househusband awaiting a filmmaking break. He
failed to get hired or financed but did become a first-rate chef and
an excellent housekeeper. Seeing a $26 balance on the family
checking account one day compelled Lee to change his tack. Drawing
on his personal experiences during those bleak years, he wrote two
screenplays and submitted them to a Taiwanese government-sponsored
screenwriting competition. His entries took first and second prizes.
Fortified with $16,000 in prize money and about $400,000 in
financing, Lee made Pushing Hands, the story of an ageing taoist
master withering in New York. It was good enough to be screened at
the 1992 Berlin Film Festival but failed to find distribution
outside Taiwan. His second-prize screenplay, The Wedding Banquet,
translated into a film that won both critical acclaim and
international arthouse success. It made Lee's reputation as a
director, winning him financing for Eat Drink Man Woman and a
surprise offer from Emma Thompson to direct her adaptation of Sense
and Sensibility. That was in 1994, the same year Lee and Schamus
began sketching the kung-fu flick that would evolve, six years
later, into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Is Ang Lee a tone poet with enormous range or a major hitmeister
in the making?