Monday, April 30, 2012

the Directors: Ang Lee

I can think of no contemporary filmmaker who is as successfully diverse as Ang Lee. In his 20-year career, the man hasn’t come remotely close to making the same film twice. He’s tackled Chinese family dynamics, Jane Austen, ‘70s American social commentary, comic book heroes, gay cowboys and Woodstock all with varying fervor and receptiveness.

Unlike many of the other directors I’ve profiled in this series, you can’t necessarily tell that you’re watching an Ang Lee film, as he has no real stylist stamp. But, for better or worse, his work is always different. He’s had a few missteps, sure, but damn if the good doesn’t outweigh the bad.

Note: I have tried desperately to locate Lee’s first film, Pushing Hands, to no avail.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)
In the delightful, earnest romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet, a gay, Taiwanese man in New York marries a Chinese woman so that 1.) the man can get his parents off his back and live happily with his American boyfriend and 2.) the Chinese woman can earn a green card and stay in the States. But when the man’s parents decide to come stateside and throw a lavish wedding for the newlyweds-to-be, all hell breaks loose.

Now, because this isn’t an American romantic comedy, The Wedding Banquet is reserved when it needs to be, touching when it wants to be, and refreshing without trying to be. It’s an honest, contemporary tale of a whimsical (if not unconventional) romance. The most hidden treasure of Lee’s career. A-

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Like Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman stars a handful of actors, but the real show-stopper is the gourmet food that occupies much of the film’s frames.

The film is essentially about the relationships a master chief, who is also a recent widower, has with his three uniquely different daughters. One daughter is older and religious and heartbroken, another is more concerned with getting ahead professionally than meeting a worthy suitor, and the youngest is an aimless twentysomething trying to figure life out. All encounter men at various points in their lives while eating massive, delectable meals at the hands of their father.

Boasting similar sentiments as The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman is an honest family tale that, unfortunately, wraps itself up a little too neatly. If choosing between the two, check out The Wedding Banquet instead. B

Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Lee took a lot of heat for making his first out-and-out English-language film an adaptation of one of the most beloved novels of all time, but, as far as I can tell, the risk was worth it, and then some.

I suppose the initial criticism wasn’t without merit. A new, Taiwanese director attempting to tackle Jane Austen may not seem like box office gold for studio heads, but let me put it this way: classic literature ain’t my bag. Never has been. And adaptations of classic prose are often met with a nod of appreciation from me, and not much more. So, for me to enjoy Sense and Sensibility unapologetically is, in my eye, to pay the film a great compliment.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie isn’t perfect. But all of the major principals involved, including Lee, actors Kate Winslet, Alan Richman and Hugh Grant, and chiefly Emma Thompson (who starred in the film and won its only Oscar for penning its script), make Sense and Sensibility a worthy viewing experience for people like myself who couldn’t really care less. B

The Ice Storm (1997)
Thank God Ang Lee was not only given the opportunity to direct Sense and Sensibility, but that the film was such a financial hit, because based on the strength of that film, Fox Searchlight allowed Lee to make one of his best films to date.

I don’t mean to harp on Lee’s ethnicity, but I find it simply astounding that a foreigner can nail American, suburban, middle class life in the ‘70s as well as he did in The Ice Storm. Watching this film is like watching a documentary of how America, in all its raw independence, failed two privileged families.

There is the story of two unhappy married couples, Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena (Joan Allen), and Jim (Jamey Sheridan) and Janey (Sigourney Weaver), and the four children that are privy to the lies, deceit and tragedy that plagues the two couples over the course of an evening.

No need to divulge more, but know that the infamous centerpiece section of his film, which places the four adults at a swingers “key party,” is some of the finest, most malicious filmmaking Lee has ever put on screen. The Ice Storm is quiet, devastating, and, most importantly, shockingly real. In no way is this film to go unseen. A

Ride With the Devil (1999)
Shamefully, I don’t nearly have as kind of words for Lee’s disastrous Civil War drama, Ride With the Devil. Plot: four Bushwhackers (rouge Missouri soldiers battling their own Union side) fight to instill justice while dodging Jayhawkers (the Union soldiers that the Bushwhackers kill). The film is long, boring, relatively incoherent, and with very few notions of redemption.

Jeffrey Wright, as a freed slave fighting with the Bushwhackers, helps move things along, as does Frederick Elmes’ smooth cinematography, but for the most part, Ride With the Devil is about as dull as it sounds. The film feels like it should work, and the seemingly talented cast (including Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jim Caviezel, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and, um, Jewel) should make it worthwhile, but, sadly, there’s just not a whole hell of a lot to work with here. D+

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those movies that completely justifies the limitless praise it continues to receive. Force me to point out a flaw and I’ll come up empty handed. Its story is complicated but executed swiftly. Its acting is reliable, and never forced. And its tender, haunting score remains one of the best of modern cinema. Oh, and the action scenes are pretty goddamn amazing, too.

Point in fact, I could dedicate this entire post to the game-changing technical wizardry that Lee and his production team, namely cinematographer Peter Pau and art director Tim Yip (who both justly won Oscars) executed to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a dazzling feat. People and objects fly and twirl with such ease that I cannot help but be astounded everytime I watch it.

I believe it was Richard Roeper who said that if you take away the action from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you’d have a timeless love story, and if you took away the love story, you’d have a dynamic action film. Thankfully for us, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has both. A+

Hulk (2003)
Ang Lee’s career has been dominated by risks. The man has never made a safe film, and when you’re as talented as he is, that’s bound to spawn masterful results. The flip side is that taking such risks is destined to produce drivel, which is what most people consider his Hulk to be.

I say most people because, frankly, I’ve never really had a problem with Hulk. Granted, I’m no fan of the majority of comic book films, but I thought Eric Bana as Bruce Banner was a spirited choice for the lead, as was Jennifer Connelly as his love interest, and Nick Nolte as his villainous father. Sure, the film contains a little too much glamour and glitz (the comic book style editing certainly wasn’t a hit with most viewers), but I’ve never though it was as bad as major critics made it out to be.

Because of the court of public opinion, the planned sequels for Hulk were scrapped, before the material was altogether “rethought” for the inferior The Incredible Hulk five years later. Hulk isn’t a movie I’m going to put on for the hell of it – I’ve seen it twice, and that’s enough –  but it’s certainly not as horrible as most make it out to be. B

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee’s quietly searing, emotionally devastating love story is, and will be remembered as, a timeless romantic classic. I called it one of the Top 10 films of the 2000s, a claim I happily continue to back up.

Everything about the film bleeds perfection. I love its slow, deliberate pace, its smooth, poetic cinematography, its iconic score and, of course, its flawless acting. Heath Ledger delivers a tour de force performance of inner turmoil as the doomed Ennis Del Mar. Every single action and gesture and facial expression and spoken word is perfect. Nothing is out of place. The man became Ennis. I have equally good things to say about Jake Gyllenhaal, who was just as effective as a character polar opposite of Ledger’s. The chemistry these two have produces what I consider to be one of the definitive cinematic romances. Ever. To not see Lee’s magnum opus is to miss out on one of the finest films ever made. A+

Lust, Caution (2007)
I love damn near everything about Lust, Caution, mostly because it is as un-American as movies get. The film begins, and carries on, with not a shred of exposition. There’s no spell-it-all-out-for-you conversations, no hammer-the-point-home scene scenarios, it’s the kind of movie that you actually have to pay attention to in order to enjoy. Like I said, un-American.

Beyond its lack of explanation, the film possess one seriously thrilling story (which is executed with appropriate restraint), and finely in-tuned acting. In fact, Tang Wei’s lead role in Lust, Caution is one of the biggest Oscar omissions of the past decade. In her first film performance, she dove head first into her role here, holding nothing back and managing to keep a grand command of her work. Likewise her onscreen counterpart Tony Leung, who here again proves how much of a pro he is.

Another thing that makes the film so un-American (and great, and infamous) are its three no holds barred sex scenes, which are as frank and honest and gut wrenching as any lovemaking scenes ever put on film. Patient, evocative, and unbelievably powerful. A

Taking Woodstock (2009)
Taking Woodstock is all about the preparation and implementation of what is arguably the most influential three consecutive days of modern American history. When I first saw the film, I became very aware very quickly that the story Lee was telling would not involve a single shot of the actual concert, and fair enough. But if you’re making a two hour tease, then you damn well better deliver a payoff, which this film doesn’t even come close to.

Taking Woodstock is boring, misguided and all together pointless. It’s also equal to Ride With the Devil as the worst-acted movie of Lee’s career. Imelda Staunton and Liev Schreiber put in good work, despite having next-to-nothing to work with, but this is essentially an uninspired misfire. D+

Life of Pi (2012)
I’m not quite sure what Life of Pi is about, and I’d like to keep it that way. What I do know is that it caused a firestorm of early buzz at CinemaCon earlier this month. The audience only got to view a few of the film’s 3D scenes, and many were already yelling Oscar. Sold.

In Summation

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Brokeback Mountain 

The Wedding Banquet
The Ice Storm
Lust, Caution

Eat Drink Man Woman 
Sense and Sensibility 

Just Plain Bad
Ride With the Devil 
Taking Woodstock 


  1. I am one of those who unashamedly enjoys Sense and Sensibility (despite the flaws). Part of that is probably because I love the story so much, and the novel (though I really should try and separate film and novel when I make my judgements!) I had no idea that that was his first english language film!
    I'm going to have to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon this week I think - I have it at home :)
    Great post!

    1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility, definitely not my kind of film.

      DEFINITELY check out Crouching Tiger. It'll blow you away.

  2. Having seen everything of Lee's just now as I did manage to find Pushing Hands through the torrent search (although the quality of the film isn't that great). I have a list of Lee's films that I've ranked recently.

    For the essentials, I would pick The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Eat Drink Man Woman.

    For the other great films of his to seek out. I pick Sense & Sensibility, Lust, Caution, & The Wedding Banquet.

    Ride with the Devil, Pushing Hands, and the short Chosen goes in the list of Intermediate as I think they're really good films. Ride with the Devil I think you and I disagree on although the version I'm eager to see is the director's cut that's available on Criterion.

    The Hulk I think is a pretty good film but still has a few issues. Taking Woodstock is my least favorite film.

    I've already decided to have Ang Lee as an Auteurs subject for 2013. I could do him now but I'd rather wait once I see Life of Pi.

    1. Hmm really need to see Pushing Hands now, glad to hear it was somewhat good.

      Seems like we're mostly right in line with one another, minus Ride With the Devil, which, to be honest, I wouldn't mind checking out on Criterion. I could see a director's cut of that flick being drastically better than the original version.

      Taking Woodstock is also my least favorite film of his. That was a real disappointment. Thanks for your comment, can't wait to see your Auteurs profile on Lee.

  3. From Lee I've only seen The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain. Loved both. I definitely need to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon now. Just looking at it brings to mind Kurosawa films like Yojimbo or Ran.

    1. I think there are definitely echoes of Kurosawa in Crouching Tiger. It's not nearly as epic as Ran, but it is goddamn fascinating. Definitely deserves to be as universally loved as it is.

      Can't wait to hear what you think about it.

  4. Awesome retrospective. I have only seen The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Taking Woodstock, but I enjoyed all three. It is a bit of a bummer that Taking Woodstock doesn't really show the festival itself, but I still found the story to be intriguing.

    I really should sit down and watch Brokeback Mountain in its entirety. I only caught clips here and there.

    1. You've definitely seen some of his best, but man, I cannot recommend Brokeback highly enough. It's just that good.

  5. I have only seen four of Lee's films - and the only one I have reviewed is Brokeback mountain. I saw The Ice Storm for the first time last month, and I liked it, but didn't love it.

    I would rank Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon an A+

    Lust, Caution gets a B+

    The Ice Storm a B

    Great write-up my friend.

    1. Nice. Love that we're mostly in agreement here (again haha)

  6. Great series!
    I also like Sense and Sensibility, because I'm a sucker for movies and novels like that. Otherwise I've seen Taking Woodstock (liked a little, but don't remember) and Brokeback Mountain, a certain favourite.
    And last but not least, Crouching Tiger which is just insanely awesome!

    1. I'm really happy people love Brokeback and CTHD as much as I do. Great great films. Thanks for reading/commenting!

  7. Great article! I love Lee's movies, Brokeback Mountain has been in my top 20 ever since I watched and I adore Sense and Sensibility. The only one of his movies I hated was Hulk which is by far the most boring film I've seen in my life.

    1. Hahaha I love you're brief comments about films you hate: short and bitter and to the point. Love it.

      Glad we love Brokeback equally!

  8. I haven't seen his first film, or his two most recent films, but everything else I would rate almost where you did, with one exception. Everyone seems to love The Ice Storm, but I just didn't connect with it. It's not a badly made film; the story and characters just didn't engage me. Glad to see you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

    1. It's funny, the first time I saw The Ice Storm, I felt mostly the same as you (this could be because I was pretty young, like 13 I believe). I've watched it three or four times since, and I just completely love it. I know it shouldn't matter that I am wholly impressed that a foreign director captured American life so accurately, but, for some reason, it does.

      Either way, glad we agree on his other work!

  9. nice review, as always, IMHO Sense and sensibility is A+ (maybe because "the chief" was behind the adaptation...)

    1. Thanks! You know, I could really stand to watch that film again. It has been far too long.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

  10. Ang Lee is one of the director's I'm agressively trying to educate myself on. I've only seen Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi. But I've loved all of these. I just borrowed out Lust, Caution which I hear is one of the more under-appreciated ones and when I get the chance I will definitely be seeking out Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

    1. I definitely think Lust, Caution is underappreciated. It's a tough watch, though. The kind of film that feels long because it wants to feel long. But it's a great and overlooked film. And Crouching Tiger... that's just a magnificent movie. Love it.