There might not be a more accomplished chameleon among A-list filmmakers than Ang Lee, the recipient of Variety’s inaugural Intl. Filmmaker of the Year award, to be presented at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 14, when his “Life of Pi” will screen as the event’s closing-night film.
In a career that spans 30 years, the Taiwan-born director has managed to tackle almost as many genres as he has movies, with each outing marked by intelligence, nuance and a distinctly adult sensitivity.
“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) might be considered the height of foodie cinema; “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), from the Jane Austin classic, epitomizes the tasteful-but-not-stuffy literary adaptation. “The Ice Storm” (1997) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) exemplify how contemporary works of fiction can benefit, and not suffer, from the added dimension film offers; “Ride With the Devil” (1999) and “Lust, Caution” (2007) view two of the most chronicled conflicts in history, the Civil War and WWII, from the revisionist perspectives of outlaw Southern loyalists and the occupied Chinese, respectively; and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” elevates the martial arts movie into something poetic.
And now with “Life of Pi,” due in theaters Nov. 1 from 20th Century Fox, Lee converts a cherished literary fantasy, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning “Life of Pi” — about an Indian boy cast away on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger — into a metaphysical special effects extravaganza, and his first 3D film.
With this latest venture, Lee is once again breaking new ground. And in his typically modest way, he expresses reservations about the achievement. “I’m like Pi; I feel adrift over the Pacific,” he told the New York Times recently. “There are times you feel defeated. You feel like your faith is being tested.”
Lee, who won an Oscar for directing “Brokeback Mountain,” has never felt that his journey as a filmmaker has been fulfilled. He’s constantly searching, always pushing himself, never complacent.
“That profound break has never really come,” Lee said at the time he was promoting “Lust, Caution,” “I don’t know if it will ever come — the break where I finally find an identity and am comfortable.”
The contrast between spirituality and nature, reserve and emotion, family loyalty and independence, are continual themes in Lee’s work. This search for meaning as an artist might date back to when the director was 18 and saw Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” for the first time, an experience that left him feeling “perplexed, dumbfounded and electrified.” Of the film, Lee told one interviewer that he’d “never seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent and so fundamentally questioning of God — who you are, (the) inner and outer conflict of human nature and human beings.”
Lee personifies this sense of quiet and serenity in his work. “The way he communicates with actors, I’ll be honest, is quite minimal but it’s so specific, and very sort of calming,” Kate Winslet told Variety about their collaboration on “Sense and Sensibility” in 2007, when she was named BAFTA’s British Artist of the Year. “He stops you from doing too much business. He just sort of strips you down and forces you to be very still, very focused, very sort of in your body and honest.”
At the time Winslet made “Sense and Sensibility,” she was not yet the in-demand, Oscar-winning talent she would become. “I was 19 when we did ‘Sense and Sensibility,'” explained the actress. “My instinct (in approaching the fiery, idealistically romantic Marianne Dashwood) was sort of getting the wind blown around in your hair and let everything fly out into the elements. And yes that character was all those things. She was also a girl dealing with falling in love, figuring out what love really meant to her and those are very, very fine emotions. And in order to convey them in a very honest way, I had to just calm down. And Ang really got me to do that.”
That patience, calm and warmth have allowed many a novice actor to thrive under his guidance. His relationship with the 17-year-old Suraj Sharma, who plays the title character in “Pi,” was described by the director in almost paternal terms. “I don’t have a superpower,” he told the Times. “I’m not a swami. But I took him as my own son. I try to play the role of guru as best I can.”
And that kind of protectiveness and empathy — the opposite of the autocratic filmmaker personified by the likes of Preminger and Hitchcock — puts the onus on the actor to please beyond their own expectations.
There was a telling moment during the filming of “Lust, Caution” when the young Tang Wei, playing an aspiring actress, was supposed to cry on stage. “The stage scene was very hard for me because I couldn’t cry that day,” Tang told Variety in 2007. “There were a lot of takes. And (Lee) got angry — not in a fitful way, just in a very frustrated way — blaming himself. And I could feel his frustration. And during a break in the dressing room I just sat in front of the mirror telling myself, ‘You must do it.’ And later, Ang walked by and saw me, and he said nothing. He could feel what I felt, every time. And so later, on the next take, I did it.”
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