Depending on your perspective, the career of Taiwanese-born, American-educated director Ang Lee is either very eclectic or thematically of a piece.
Arguments can be made on both sides. And in recognition of this duality, the Deauville Film Festival is honoring Lee this year with a retrospective including his new film, the Civil War drama “Ride With the Devil,” starring Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and singer-songwriter Jewel.
“I think the world is more open-minded today,” Lee said during a Cannes press conference in 1997. “Anything can happen. The film community is getting closer and closer and more understanding. There’s more communication and interest in each other’s culture. With the movies I made before, I found that there was, around the world, a layer of audience that was very reachable. They responded. They saw some of their selves in them.”
The 44-year-old director’s background has certainly prepared him for a role as a cultural navigator. Lee’s parents emigrated to Taiwan from mainland China during the Cultural Revolution and envisioned a teaching career for their son. But when he failed to pass the entrance exam to college, Lee decided to study theater in Taipei.
After serving in the military for two years, in 1978 Lee came to the U.S., where he earned his bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Illinois and then studied film at New York U., where he was assistant cameraman on Spike Lee’s student thesis film.
Film work did not come easily. During a fallow period, Lee entered a screenwriting competition sponsored by the government of Taiwan and won first prize, which enabled him to finance his first feature.
“Pushing Hands” and the two films that followed, “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” were beautifully observed family drama focusing on the schism between Asian cultural values and encroaching Westernization. All three films were contemporary and set in a middle-class environment.
Then, in what appeared to be a complete break, Lee leaped across time and space to Jane Austen’s England with a stylized, remarkably fluid adaptation of the author’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995). It appeared to be a radical departure, both in content and style.
During a press conference in 1996, “Sense” star and screenwriter Emma Thompson discussed how difficult the assignment must have been for Lee. “He was coming into a British crew, a British script,” noted Thompson. “All these actors knew each other, and they’re going around saying, ‘Oh yes, Jane Austin, we can do that.’ Then Ang turns up and says, ‘Actually I would like something a little different.’ I’m sure that’s why the film has the quality that it has because we were knocked off center. There had been endless adaptations of Austen, and Ang required more, and what he required was extremely subtle.”
He followed it with another literary adaptation, “The Ice Storm,” a drama set in 1970s New England that seemed to have little to do with either his early films or the Austen movie.” What he [Ang] said to me,” recalled Joan Allen in a New York Times piece, “was that ‘Sense and Sensibility’ was about people trying to be good when they really wanted to be bad, and that ‘The Ice Storm,’ was about people behaving very badly and nature coming in, slapping them on the hand saying, ‘You need to be good.’ ”
Equally surprising was his decision to explore the American Civil War, as seen from the perspective of a ragtag group of Confederate fighters in “Ride With the Devil,” which is filled with guerrilla-style battle sequences.
Lee’s currently shooting “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a 19th-century martial-arts film starring Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat. It’s being shot in Chinese, with much of the filming being done deep in the heart of the Gobi Desert.
Certainly his subject matter has been diverse and eclectic, and to his credit, Lee seems as at ease in the contemporary world as he does in the past — in whatever part of the world on which he chooses to focus.
“It all has to do with Ang’s sense of exploration and a willingness to stay open to the world,” says James Schamus, Lee’s longtime production collaborator and frequent scenarist (“Ride With the Devil,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger”). “Every movie is so different because it allows him to grow and not be backed into a corner.”
But thematically, Lee’s concerns are remarkably consistent, says Schamus, particularly “the way in which people meet their social obligations and often transcend them; how the binds that tie people together often literally tie them. And at other times, those same binds help them find liberation and freedom.”
In the upcoming “Crouching Tiger,” the action will unfold from the point of view of two women in 19th-century China who fight tradition through the practice of martial arts. As with all his films, the thematic journey is from constriction to liberation.
Both “Ride” and “Crouching Tiger” share with “Wedding Banquet” protagonists who are outsiders. In the latter pic, the central character is an Asian in America who also happens to be gay. The women in “Crouching Tiger” breach the exclusively male arts of self-defense.
While “Ride’s” protagonists are Confederacy bushwhackers, the film stresses the wrong-mindedness of their cause. Most directors would take one perspective or the other, Schamus says; Lee decided to include both.
“Some directors get blown away by the mythology of the Civil War,” Schamus says. “But Ang is so specific in his dealings with human relationships that he gets to the heart of America’s problems with race relations, avoiding (politically correct) mass media regurgitation or our (internalized) stereotypes.”
It’s for these continuing and increasingly complex depictions of character and society that Lee has, after only six films in the past decade, had the kind of impact it takes many directors an entire career to achieve.
(Ben Fritz also contributed to this report.)