Thursday, July 22, 2010

Modern Maestros: Ang Lee

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.


Matt said...

I haven't seen very many of Ang Lee's films, but "The Ice Storm" would have to be my favourite.

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

Ang Lee has directed not only my favorite gay drama (Brokeback Mountain), but my favorite gay comedy (The Wedding Banquet).

On top of that, he's directed my favorite chop-socky movie (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and my favorite period romantic movie (Sense & Sensibility).

Even his "failures" are fascinating like Ride With The Devil, The Hulk, Taking Woodstock, and even The Ice Storm.

What can I say? I'd watch any movie he's made. I want him to succeed. He's brilliant.

Amir said...

haha, i was wondering when you'd get to Ang Lee on this series. I was sure you would feature him eventually.

For me, it's tough choosing a favourite from his films.
i think i like Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution exactly the same.
and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a close second.

Volvagia said...

So, this article pretty much says that there's no chance of him doing an adaptation of The Bone People. (Todd Haynes? I want him to move beyond the sly metaphor of [Safe]. All his other films deal with sexual orientation on a literal level, so why haven't more critics tried to analyze [Safe] this way? If anyone thinks I'm crazy to think of it as a metaphor for asexuality, speak your peace.)

Ben said...

Not listing Crouching Tiger as a masterpiece?? Blasphemy.

Love these 4 in this order:
1. Crouching Tiger
2. The Ice Storm
3. Sense and Sensibility
4. Brokeback Mountain

So different and so good. I have yet to see Lust, Caution. I really should.


I really think he's the most underrated of the currrent crop of highly rated directors if you know what I mean. This is because he works in quiet emotional gale storms and for whatever reason, people like their movies to be more sledgehammer blunt and less delicately observed. but he's so masterful.

i love that you focused so much on Lust, Caution and how in many ways it's the quintessential Lee film. It has to be the best film among his films that weren't received with abundant hosannas. Obviously the three that most awards bodies responded to (Sense & Sensibility, Brokeback and Crouching Tiger) more than deserved their honors and earned their reputations as modern classics.

Arkaan said...

Very well written, Robert.

Jorge Rodrigues said...

For me, Ang Lee is extraordinary. And I consider Hulk his ultimate worst film. And I really think everyone should give Taking Woodstock a second viewing. I enjoyed it a lot watching it again.

For me, Brokeback Mountain is his sole masterpiece. But Crouching Tiger and Lust, Caution come close. Sense and Sensibility is very good, but I like to give more credit to Emma Thompson's screenplay than to Ang Lee's direction (don't really know why). She really deserved that win.

Now I fully expect a return to form with 'LIFE OF PI'. I don't like the idea of it being in 3D but... I can live with it.

Terence said...

Love this piece, but I would consider Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon his masterpiece along with Brokeback Mountain.

I love Ang Lee's dedication to the emotional gale storms as Nat put it, even though it can sometimes backfire (I loathe his Hulk film). He really lets the story simmer and when those emotional moments come we are affected twice as much

Jorge Rodrigues said...

I know he hasn't worked that often this decade (only Closer and Charlie Wilson's War) but ANGELS IN AMERICA alone should warrant Mike Nichols a mention in your series Robert, non?


Anonymous said...

I have only seen Sense and Sensibility in its entirety, and I've seen enough of Crouching Tiger to make a judgment. The scenes between Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh feel like a repressed British piece and directed by a British director, and that's what I love about it. Both should have more and better roles stateside.

And as a gay man I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain. There, I said it.

Andrew David said...

I've gotta say, Taking Woodstock might not be a masterpiece but I really liked it. So many enjoyable elements even if some things (Imelda Staunton) were uncharacteristically fake and nasty.

Sara said...

One of my favorite Ang Lee films is Eat Drink Man Woman which wasn't even discussed. So far I've only seen Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Eat Drink. I do love the characters in those films, so much emotion in everything.

Knox said...

As a fellow Taiwanese, I'm really glad to see Lee featured here. Maybe this sounds silly even now, but I still can't get over the fact that Crash stole best picture from Brokeback Mountain.

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Dan said...

Excellent overview of Lee. Hulk was a big misstep but thankfully he rectified it. I'd agree with one of the other posters - The Ice Storm would probably be my favourite.

Rebecka said...

I adore Ang Lee and I've seen all his movies.
For my favourite I could never chose between Brokeback Mountain and Lust Caution, I find them both to be perfect masterpieces (and I cannot for the life of my understand why LC is not widely considered as such). The Ice Storm and Eat Drink Man Woman come in close second. I even liked Woodstock - even if it's hardly a masterpiece it's still better then much of the complete crap that reach our theaters...

Anonymous said...

I revisited Brokeback two nights ago and still cannot stop thinking about it. I usually let the whole Oscar loss catastrophe overshadow the movie but I realised two nights ago, oscar or no oscar, that movie will always be amazing and become on of the classics.
I especially find it EXTROADINARY what Lee got out four young actors whom before had been in teen flicks or dawsons creek or princess movies. Ledger, Gyllenhaal, Williams and Hathaway (that scene on the phone wows me) are amazing.


Mirko S. said...

I'm very curious about his LIFE OF PI project, since I really liked the book

but I hope Ang Lee could achieve his dream working with Maggie Cheung some day...but it's just 'cause I'm really interested in watching Cheung on screen again


mirko -- i think we're all in that boat.

Deborah said...

I adore Ang Lee, even his mediocre movies are worthwhile. I think Brokeback Mountain is THE movie of its decade. I found Taking Woodstock to be charming and entertaining and I don't understand why it got ripped so badly.

All that said, The Hulk was an unmitigated disaster for reasons that have nothing to do with f/x. It was self-important, joyless, and ponderous. It wasn't even so-bad-it's-good. It was dull dull dull.

lylee2 said...

Ahh, thank you for this!

I agree that "The Hulk" is better than most people give it credit for, whereas I think the opposite for "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger." Don't get me wrong, they were both very good - esp. "Brokeback" - but not quite masterpieces. Just my opinion.

OTOH I'm definitely in the crowd that considers "Lust, Caution" a masterpiece. Why that film was so coolly received I'll never understand. It's currently tied with "Sense & Sensibility" as my favorite Ang Lee pic.

Not so much underrated as overlooked: "The Wedding Banquet" and "The Ice Storm," which rank just behind L/C and S&S for me.

I also really enjoyed "Eat Drink Man Woman" though ultimately found it a little lightweight compared to the equally funny but more poignant "Wedding Banquet."

Maggie Cheung in an Ang Lee film = bliss

Laika said...

Not to be deliberately iconoclastic or anything, but I think 'Taking Woodstock' is one of his best films - better than 'Brokeback Mountain', even, and a more necessary historical intervention. And 'Hulk' is riveting and strange - having defended it to my fanboy friends, the failure of the Ed Norton-starring revisionist follow up was pretty satisfying (even they thought it was much worse).

Like everyone else, I found 'Lust, Caution' amazing, but it is so emotionally acute, so painful, that I'm not sure I could bring myself to watch it again.

Stu said...

I still think that "The Ice Storm" is his masterpiece. It also features my favorite performance from the 90s--Joan Allen doing what she does best.

Craig said...

I never could understand the mixed reviews Lust, Caution received from the critics. Chicago, Satellite, and the Golden Globes all nominated the film for best foreign language film, but all the other major film award groups ignored it (granted, 2007 was an exceptional year for foreign films). Go figure. Lust, Caution probably will be one of those films which gets reassessed over time and becomes more beloved.

Alison Flynn said...

I love The Wedding Banquet. And I thought Lust, Caution was fantastic (it was high up on my top 10 movies of 2007 list - There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men beat it).

And of course Brokeback Mountain is a masterpiece.

Great write-up.

Volvagia said...

Yeah "Hulk" wasn't that bad. Not a Great, like some others, but it allowed for more possibilities by not exposing too much of Bruce Banner's psychology. (Note to Ed Norton: Why So Serious?) And Lust, Caution got "mixed, trending positive" reviews. (60-75% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to straight mixed which I evaluate as 40-59% positive reviews. Plain negative is 20-39% positive reviews and loathsome is anywhere below 20% positive reviews. 76-90% is very good reviews and 90% is ecstatic reviews, of the "what's that on my pants" variety.)

Volvagia said...

I really do think the Norton Hulk was trying to be more serious, oddly enough. Specifically in that, "we've got to know every piece of the hero's psychology and reasons in extreme expository detail" approach that always grates when a writer tries it, especially when it's super-hero material (Nolan's Batman is, in the writing, a very rough sketch, as compared to say, Norton's Hulk or Guillermo's Hellboy, which leave nothing for the actor to do but deliver the lines.)

Anonymous said...

LUST, CAUTION!! that's a masterpiece!
Brokeback Mountain, The ice storm and Crouching tiger are really good ones.
Taking Woodstock it's better than you remember, Nat. ;)

matt said...

Lust, Caution is definitely one that caught me by surprise, perhaps because there was virtually no buzz around it.

There's a lot to love in Hulk though too. I can see why some might see it as boring, but it's just a more philosophical superhero movie than most. For me it was a good mix of ideas, action, and visual inventiveness (I actually liked the comic book editing flourishes). Incredible Hulk just seemed so much hollower in comparison.


Volvagia -- agreed on the two Hulks.

matt -- absolutely on the 'hollower'. More action yes, but there wasn't a single moment that was as resonant as a couple of moments in Ang Lee's version... (though admittedly his version is much more uneven in terms of entertainment value)

Janice said...

I've only seen the four films Ben listed - which means I've yet to see a bad Ang Lee film. I'm hoping to add more to that list; he's one of the few directors nowadays whose name really piques my interest in a film.