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With Ang Lee's 11th feature Taking Woodstock now in theaters, APA looks back on a career already worthy of a top 10.
The guy can do anything, except possibly make an uninteresting movie. In his 17 years behind the camera, Ang Lee has gained a reputation as a restless master of all genres, faithful only to his own sense of emotional truth. Given his transnational career and his interest in the lives of the marginalized, Lee's also one of the most-studied directors working today, with his work essentially considered a map of the contemporary world's cultural breaks and continuities.
He's also considered one of current cinema's masters of melodrama, a mode of filmmaking that enlivens his work, regardless of genre. Like George Cukor, he's considered a brilliant director of women (and "feminine" men). Like Howard Hawks, he effortlessly has his actors shape the complex characters drawn up by his frequent screenwriter James Schamus. But like those directors, Lee doesn't get as much credit as he deserves in the art cinema world -- fellow countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and the late Edward Yang are considered more formally interesting.
Here's a rare case where the Oscars tend to get it right. Three of Lee's 11 films have been nominated for best picture Oscars, and three for best foreign language film. Lee is the first non-white to win for best director. Perhaps the reason the Academy gets Ang Lee is because he speaks to a more classical sense of cinema (with an emphasis on writing and acting), but infuses it with a contemporary sensibility. Sometimes that sensibility raises controversy -- three of his films deal with homosexuality, three have rewritten mainstream cinema's rules on the depiction of sex. But unlike his art cinema peers, Lee's cutting-edge is appreciated by the masses, not spurned. Lee knows human nature and the audience, and never compromises on either. --Brian Hu
1. The Ice Storm (1997)
In what could easily have been a saga of suburban scandal, The Ice Storm is remarkably understated, preferring to ruminate on the ominous crackling of Connecticut ice than the fiery explosions of sexual angst. The families in the film don't implode, they slowly fissure before crumbling down. This is Ang Lee at his most emotionally crushing -- with the possible exception of Lust, Caution.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The best martial arts film ever? Purists will adamantly disagree. But how about the most beautiful martial arts film ever? The most romantic? The most tender? The most poetic? Then you'll find fewer detractors. For the most "macho" of Chinese genres to be deconstructed so elegantly, without losing any of the heroic bliss of the genre's literary roots, and rendered through the lens of 21st century global Chinese identity, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a landmark.
3. Lust, Caution (2007)
Set in 1930s Shanghai under WWII's Japanese occupation, Lust, Caution is based on a 1979 short story by Eileen Chang about a group of university students who plot to assassinate a high-ranking Japanese collaborator (Tony Leung). A young spy (Tang Wei) is sent to seduce him in order to lure him into their trap. Lee and Schamus transform Chang's short story and drag it into 157 minutes of emotional torture, where pleasure and pain (and limbs) are brutally intertwined, power play is delicate as daggers, and love and murder can be separated by mere seconds. It's exhilarating, draining, and Ang Lee at his most provocative.
4. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
American critics obsessed over Eat Drink Man Woman's depiction of food, but how about its portrait of the modern Taiwanese family? Three thoroughly Westernized daughters (associated with international air travel, Christianity, and Wendy's fast food) spar with their Chinese chef father. Countless variations followed (like Singapore's Rice Rhapsody and the U.S.'s Red Doors), but Ang Lee's pitch-perfect dramedy (still his only Taiwan-set film) is undoubtedly the best.
5. Ride with the Devil (1999)
Time has treated Ride with the Devil well, mostly because it's taken time for us to rethink what Ang Lee was doing with the war genre (and the Civil War picture more specifically) and what James Schamus was doing with the dialogue. Hell, it's even taken time for us to overlook Jewel's celebrity. The result is a flawless examination of the confused psychologies of war -- a war that has a black man fighting for the Confederacy, and a team of Southern whites who are his comrades. Ang Lee accomplishes this by resorting to no caricatures, which might be why this long, seemingly meandering film was initially so perplexing.
6. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brokeback Mountain further solidified Lee's ability to coax nuanced performances out of his actors. In this case, his cast was a brood of young actors who had yet to display their full potential onscreen: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and the late Heath Ledger. (The later two earned Oscar nominations the following year). The sweeping cowboy love story took home numerous awards in 2006, earning Ang Lee the Academy Award for best director -- making him the only ethnic minority in the show's 81-year history to do so.
7. The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Before giving us the dramatic angst of gay life in the mid-1900's American West, Lee showed us that gay angst can also be quite hilarious. A twenty-something gay man named Wai-tung is in a happy stable relationship with his boyfriend -- until he finds out his conservative Taiwanese parents are making a surprise visit to the United States. Problem is, his parents think he's engaged to a woman... and they're planning an elaborate Chinese banquet. Lies lead to more lies. This is Ang Lee at his most madcap.
8. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Emma Thompson (and I suppose Jane Austen) gets much-deserved credit for Sense and Sensibility's lovely script, but Ang Lee probably deserved more than the "he's Taiwanese!?" gasps he elicited when the film was first released. As lovely as the words were, let's not forget the direction of the young Kate Winslet (in a tremendous breakthrough), the pre-Harry Potter Alan Rickman (solemn grace), and post-Four Weddings Hugh Grant (at his quite funniest). Everything came together when other 1990s Austen adaptations had their holes -- the cinematography, the music, the art direction made this the best of the cycle.
9. The Hulk (2003)
James Schamus likes to attribute The Hulk's commercial disappointment to the unprecedented success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man the previous year. Though I think it's more complicated than that, Schamus points us to what made The Hulk special. Ang Lee's take is no superhero movie in that there's nothing special (in the positive sense) or heroic (in the glamorous sense) about the titular character. You wouldn't want to play him in a video game. You don't even know how to cheer for him. The Hulk is more like King Kong: a misunderstood monster. Marvel quickly deleted Lee's version from public memory with the super, heroic 2008 version. With Disney's recent takeover, maybe The Hulk will be further juvenilized.
10. Taking Woodstock (2009)
Ang Lee's most uninspired film is yet among his most entertaining. A town with a problem gets its savior. The savior, as it turns out, gets his blank check from a bunch of crazy hippies who are about to show the town -- and America -- what a good time is all about. Any sense of urgency vanishes in the party atmosphere. Potential conflicts are fizzled out in psychadelic swirls, and family dramas go up in smoke. By now, Ang Lee can do no wrong directing actors and handling dialogue, and for a summer comedy, that's about all you can ask for.
and because it's really not worth ignoring...
11. Pushing Hands (1992)
Ang Lee's award-winning script made for a rather obvious immigrant tale. There are better films about cultural assimilation and generational conflict (in fact, Ang Lee's made some of the finest). And the acting -- oh, the acting -- is shockingly bad compared to the heights we'd get later in Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain. Yet, Pushing Hands contains some of the most iconic moments in all of Ang Lee's films: the silent awkwardness between a Taiwanese man and his Caucasian American daughter-in-law, a sweet performance by Hong Kong film legend Wang Lai, and a most memorable demonstration of "pushing hands" by a Chinatown dishwasher who has about had it with the world.
Compiled by Brian Hu, with contributions from Ada Tseng
Date Posted: 9/4/2009