Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.
Maestro: Ang Lee
Known For: Prestigious, emotional, subtle character dramas.
Influences: according to Ang Lee himself, Bergman, Antonioni and Billy Wilder.
Masterpieces: Brokeback Mountain of course. Maybe Sense and Sensibility too.
Disasters: Taking Woodstock wasn't notable enough to really be a disaster. Not sure if that's worse.
Better than you remember: I maintain that whatever people dislike about Hulk, the real driving force against that movie was the special effects. If those were better, people would be more likely to overlook other things.
Box Office: That being said, Hulk is his highest grosser with 132 Million.
It's said that no film is about the time it's set as much as it is about the time it's made. For Ang Lee, whose films for the past fifteen years have all but one been period pieces, this is not just a truth but a great convenience. His stories of evolving social, sexual, and class mores and how they sow despair are more easily embraced by a society that sees someone else's ugly reflection in the mirror. But make no mistake, it is a mirror we're looking into. Historical settings are also a useful way for Lee to keep his films modern without being dated by by distracting social or political messages. In fact, for Lee, social and political messages are never the point, they're merely a means to an end. The end is people. Consider how many evil, one-dimensional homophobic characters Lee presented in Brokeback Mountain to underscore a "society bad!" message. Can't really think of any? Because Lee's not as interested in criticizing society as much as he is understanding the individuals whose desires run directly into the wall of its constraints.
Lee's characters are sad, conflicted, confused, repressed and occasionally overrun with emotion, but never one dimensional to make a point. They are the heart of his films and the embodiment of his themes. This is why Zhang Ziyi's rebellious Jen is the emotional center of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's why the Dashwood sisters turned out to be perfect ciphers of social restrictiveness for Lee. It's why reviewers (no offense to anyone) who complained that Lust, Caution was too subtle were surprisingly off the mark. As if anyone should go into an Ang Lee movie expecting anything other than bound up emotions. That film also has the distinction of owning perhaps the perfect title for an Ang Lee film. The two things he comes back to again and again in his characters: caution... and lust. And since we're talking about lust, let's. It's the most primary element of Lee's films I haven't mentioned yet. After all, lust and love are two of the most primal and powerful emotions we have, and the two emotions you least want suppressed by the reality around you.
From suburban key parties to wuxia legends, Ang Lee's characters' dramas are eternally caught up in the the conflict between their desires and the world's demands. Fore Lee, focusing on such passion is a great way to immediately involve the audience. We consider our own passions and the realities that would deny them to us. This universal experience allows Lee to jump into a wide number of genres, timelines and characters, almost always with success. It doesn't hurt that the man is a fantastic director of his actors (a theme that keeps coming up in these Modern Maestro pieces). It is, after all, the actor who serves as the gateways for the audience. For Lee, his actors portray their heartache with such intensity they they make watching anguish into a profound joy. Which is why we'll always be looking forward to the next Ang Lee film.