Famous for his emotionally charged films that have found wide audiences in the West, Ang Lee is one of the most internationally recognised Asian Directors.
Lee’s parents fled mainland China after the civil war and set up home in Taiwan. Ang attended the National Taiwan University of Arts, graduating in 1975 and emerged with a passion for drama and the arts.
Lee and his family felt like outsiders in Taiwan and moved to the USA in the late 1970’s. Ang undertook a degree in Theatre at the University of Illinois, where he met his future wife Jane Lin, 林惠嘉, Lín Huìjiā, a Taiwanese student completing her doctorate.
Originally Lee wanted to act, but his spoken english proved a problem and he turned to Directing. He attended Graduate School at New York University where one of his classmates was Spike Lee.
Ang worked on the crew of Spike Lee’s film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop; We Cut Heads, and directed a short called Shades of the Lake in 1982 which won Best Drama Award in Short Film in Taiwan.
Emerging from graduate school with a 43 minute drama Fine Line under his belt, Ang won New York University’s Wasserman Award for Outstanding Direction and was taken up by the Public Broadcasting Service. That drew the attention of the William Morris Agency, but did not bring any serious opportunities for film making.
Taiwan’s Prodigal Son
Turning to screenwriting, Ang entered a competition supported by the Taiwanese Government Information Office with two screenplays: Pushing Hands, and The Wedding Banquet. They one first and second place.
Li-Kong Hsu (徐立功, Xú Lìgōng) – offered to produce Pushing Hands as a feature with Lee directing in 1991. This was the first of the Father Knows Best trilogy that later included The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, and established Lee’s reputation as a film maker.
The Wedding Banquet came out in 1993 and was a roaring success internationally, winning the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
Eat Drink Man Woman also won Best Foreign Language Film at both the Golden Globe, Academy Awards, and British Academy Awards in 1995. It also won five awards in Taiwan, including the coveted Best Director from Independent Spirit.
The first Hollywood movie Lee directed was Sense and Sensibility in 1995. With Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and Kate Winslet starring, the film was a success internationally. Ang went on to direct The Ice Storm in 1997, and Ride With the Devil in 1999 to critical acclaim, but without huge sales.
Back with Ki-Kong Hsu
After his old friend Hsu suggested a new collaboration based on traditional wuxi a martial arts genre classics, Lee brought together talent from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and the United States. They began work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With Chinese dialogue and english subtitles, the film was groundbreaking.
The film became the highest grossing foreign film in many countries worldwide (notably in the UK and USA). It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won Best Foreign Language Film and three others.
Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were inspired by the success of Crouching Tiger to explore making wuxia films for Western audiences. House of Flying Daggers and Hero followed, and Asian crossover film became established.
Return to Hollywood?
With Hulk in 2003 Lee returned to more standard blockbuster film making, but the film was not a huge success.
Tired of fickle responses Ang turned his considerable talent to a low budget independent film Brokeback Mountain, in 2005. The film was an unexpected smash hit, and won Ang 71 awards and 52 nominations.
Turning his attention back to Chinese subjects Lust Caution followed in 2007. The film ran into problems with international audiences due to it’s very Chinese style and it’s explicit sex scenes, but still won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Lee’s crowning glory was Life of Pi in 2012 which cost 120 million US dollars, but was loved by critics and audiences alike. Life of Pi won 11 Academy Award nominations and won Best Director.
Ang Lee Filmography
2018 Thrilla in Manila (pre-production)
2016 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
2012 Life of Pi
2009 Taking Woodstock
2007 Lust, Caution
2005 Brokeback Mountain
2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
1999 I Ride with the Devil
1997 The Ice Storm
1995 Sense and Sensibility
1994 Eat Drink Man Woman
1993 The Wedding Banquet
1992 Pushing Hands