"Making a martial arts film in English to me is the same as John Wayne speaking Chinese in a western." Ang Lee.
Taiwanese film director Ang Lee garnered international recognition while winning the 2006 Academy Awards Best Director for the controversial romantic drama Brokeback Mountain (2005; starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). The New York-based filmmaker has also created such highly-acclaimed films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000; nominated Academy Award Best Director and Best Picture; won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), Sense and Sensibility (1995; nominated Academy Award Best Picture) and The Wedding Banquet (1993; nominated Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film). He is now working on his upcoming film project, Lust, Caution (a.k.a. Se jie), a WWII-era espionage thriller adapted from Eileen Chang's short story.
One of today's greatest contemporary filmmakers, Ang Lee was named as one of Time Magazine's TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World in 2006.
Childhood and Family:
"I don't know where I am, but I never know where I am. I was born in China, then my parents moved to Taiwan, where we were outsiders, then to the States, then back to China, then back here. I trust the elusive world created by movies more than anything else. I live on the other side of the screen." Ang Lee.
In the town of Chaojhou in Pingtung, a southern agricultural county in Taiwan, Ang Lee was born on October 23, 1954. Following the Nationalists' defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Lee’s father, a scholar and school principal, escaped to Taiwan, and his mother, Lee Yangsi, also moved to Taiwan after the Revolution. Meanwhile, his paternal grandparents were put to death for being landowners during the Communist revolution in mainland China.
Little Ang Lee was raised in a family that put strong emphasis on education and the Chinese classics. His father filled his children with Chinese culture and art studies, especially calligraphy.
Ang Lee attended the prestigious Tainan First Senior High School where his father was principal. Instead of following his father’s will to become a professor, Lee headed to Taipei to study acting. There, he enrolled a three-year college, National Arts School (now reorganized and expanded as National Taiwan University of Arts) and graduated in 1975. And after completing the mandatory military service, he flew to the US in 1979 to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a B.F.A. Degree in Theatre/Theater Direction in 1980. Subsequently, he went to the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, where he received a Masters Degree in Film Production.
"My father's family were liquidated during the Cultural Revolution in China because they were landowners. He was the only one to escape. I was born and brought up in Taiwan. But you absorb the trauma. My parents had no sense of security. It was as if the world could turn against them at any moment." Ang Lee.
In 1983, Ang Lee tied the knot with a molecular biologist named Janice Lin. The couple happily married until now and has two sons: Haan (born 1984) and Mason (born 1990).
“It could be the hidden side of you; I think making movies is a great way to release that. I think it is important to be honest with that, and have fun with it.” Ang Lee.
While attending New York University, Ang Lee was Spike Lee’s classmate and worked as assistant director on Spike Lee’s acclaimed master’s degree thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. In 1982, during graduate school, Ang Lee finished a 16-mm short film, Shades of the Lake, which won the Best Drama Award in Short Film in Taiwan. Two years later, he won Best Film and was named Best Director in the NYU student film festival, thanks to his thesis work, a 43-minute drama entitled Fine Line. Lee was subsequently chosen for the Public Broadcasting Service.
Ang Lee’s thesis film attracted the attention of famous talent and literary agency William Morris Agency (WMA), who later represented Lee. However, Lee found a few opportunities there and became jobless for six years. During this time, Lee wrote several screenplays and in 1990, he submitted two screenplays, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, to a competition sponsored by Taiwan’s Government Information Office. His works came in first and second respectively and they caught the eye of producer Li-Kong Hsu, who offered Lee to direct Pushing Hands.
Full-length feature Pushing Hands, debuted in 1991, received both critical and commercially success in Taiwan. The dramatic comedy, which shows the contrast between traditional Chinese ideas and the materialistic life style in the West, nabbed eight nominations in the Golden Horse Film Festival, Taiwan’s premier film festival.
Lee followed it up with the hit independent film The Wedding Banquet (1993), which centers a gay Chinese-American man who marries a woman to satisfy his nagging parents and get her a green card. The romantic drama comedy was highly praised and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. And having collected eleven Taiwanese and international awards, the film has helped to catapult Ang Lee’s name toward stardom.
In 1995, Lee reteamed with Hsu to create Eat Drink Man Woman, which follows a renowned Taipei chef and widower who lives with his three attractive daughters. The romantic drama comedy was once again a box office hit and was critically acclaimed. It swept five awards in Taiwan and worldwide, including the Best Director from Independent Spirit. Eat Drink Man Woman was later remade in the 2001 movie Tortilla Soup.
Hollywood eventually welcomed Lee. He helmed Columbia TriStar’s British classical Sense and Sensibility in 1995. The film was adapted into big screen by Emma Thompson (she also starred), who won a 1996 Academy Award for her work. It also garnered six nominations in the Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture, and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama.
Another two Hollywood movies followed, The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999). The Ice Storm (starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver), based on Rick Moody's novel, won Sigourney Weaver a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, Ride with the Devil (starring Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich), inspired by Daniel Woodrell's novel, was less favored by critics.
In 1999, Lee and long partner and supporter Hsu began making a movie about the traditional Chinese’s martial art and chivalry, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a.k.a. Wo hu cang long). The China-Hong Kong-Taiwan-USA co-production, based on the fourth novel in a pentalogy by Wang Dulu, features an international Chinese ethnic cast of Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen. Made on an only $15 million budget, with dialogue in Mandarin, the movie became a surprising global success. Released in 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon grossed $128 million in the United States alone. It was also highly praised at the Academy Awards, winning four awards at the prestigious ceremony, including one for Best Foreign Language Film. It also won four BAFTA and two Golden Globe awards.
Ang Lee returned to Hollywood in 2003 to work on his next project, Hulk. The movie, which based on the comic book series The Incredible Hulk published by Marvel Comics, stars Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte. Hulk was Lee's first big-budget movie, but it was not well-received by audiences and received generally lukewarm reviews.
2005 saw Ang Lee revived with the controversial romantic drama movie Brokeback Mountain, adapted from the short story by Annie Proulx. The film that depicts homosexuality between two cowboys (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), had the most nominations (eight) for the 78th Academy Awards. The film finally won three: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. By winning Best Director at the Academy Awards, Lee becomes the first Asian and the first non-Caucasian ever to win the award. As for the film itself, although it was widely considered to be the front-runner for the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Brokeback Mountain ultimately lost to Paul Haggis-directed film, Crash. Meanwhile, in the BAFTA, Brokeback Mountain won four awards: Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana), and another four awards at the Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Director - Motion Picture (Ang Lee), Best Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), Best Song (Gustavo Santaolalla and Bernie Taupin, "A Love That Will Never Grow Old").
“There's a private feeling to the movie, an intimate feeling. I think eventually everybody has a 'Brokeback Mountain' in them. Someone you want to come back to. And of course, some people don't come back.” Ang Lee.
Following his victory, Lee is now preparing another project entitled Lust, Caution (a.ka. Se jie). It is a WWII-era espionage thriller set in Shanghai and adapted from the short story by the famed Chinese author Eileen Chang. It was announced that Tony Leung and film newcomer Tang Wei will star in the upcoming film. The shooting is set to begin in fall 2006 and scheduled to be released in 2007.
"I'm experienced enough to know that the hardest thing to tell is an epic short story; slices of life that add up to an epic feeling." Ang Lee.