Much has been written about the mysterious cultural enigma that is Ang Lee. Here’s a filmmaker as fascinated by the mechanics of kung fu wirework as he is by the emotional subtleties of Jane Austen, as familiar with the rugged American West as he is with his native Taiwan.
Versatile as he is, Lee is also one of our most consistent filmmakers, and arguably the cinema’s most sympathetic observer of love under social duress: Look past the soaring kinesis of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and you’ll find the same exquisite heartache pulsing through his frontier romance “Brokeback Mountain.”
At his best, Lee doesn’t just make films but cultural touchstones, movies that have an almost effortless way of slipping into the national conversation. It’s hard to believe that 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” as beloved as it was parodied, was once deemed one of the riskiest properties in Hollywood — but then, it was similarly hard to believe that a cheaply made foreign-language picture could reach blockbuster status before “Crouching Tiger” came along in 2000.
The prestige and mainstream success conferred upon Lee (culminating in the Oscar he won for directing “Brokeback,” making him the first Asian to receive the honor) have also earned him scorn from cinephiles who find the helmer’s ultra-refined style hopelessly middlebrow. Love it or hate it, it’s the poise of Lee’s filmmaking, matched by an unerring respect for whichever milieu he chooses to immerse the viewer in, that lends his movies their cultural and dramatic weight.
Lee’s latest conversation piece is “Lust, Caution,” a chamber drama about a dangerous liaison in WWII-era China, featuring three exceptionally graphic sex scenes.
It remains to be seen whether Lee’s pedigree can help Focus Features find an audience despite its NC-17 rating Stateside; overcoming the MPAA’s death blow wouldn’t be the least of this filmmaker’s accomplishments.
In the meantime, it’s heartening to know that from Eileen Chang to Rick Moody, from a secret Shanghai love nest to the Kansas-Missouri border, there are few places in the world or the human heart that Ang Lee won’t dare to go.