It’s not that his movies have gone unnoticed, not when his Oscar batting average is an astonishing .500. Check out this eye-popping stat: Of the 12 features he’s directed since 1992, no fewer than six of them – The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and now Life ofPi – have earned Oscar nominations as best picture of the year, either over all or in the foreign-language category. And a seventh, The Ice Storm, damn well should have. In a business where it’s hard to get any film made, let alone a very good one, that’s a remarkable ratio.
Then again, much is remarkable about Ang Lee, including the odd fact that Ang Lee himself is so seldom remarked upon. In our celebrity-driven culture, he’s an anomaly, the exceptional case where the work is far more celebrated than the worker. It isn’t that his films, kinetically dazzling and thematically rich, lack a strong personal signature. He’s every inch the auteur. Nevertheless, when it comes to the fame game, Ang would rank a distant fourth even among those other Lees – Spike or Stan or Peggy. Typically, great directors are brands (Lincoln is a Spielberg film even when it isn’t) or at least Fellini-esque adjectives. But Ang Lee is a great director who’s neither. Why?
Well, a brand needs an identity, a fixed address, and by his own admission, Lee lacks one: “I’m a drifter and an outsider. There’s not one single environment I can totally belong to.” He’s not just talking existentially here, but literally, too. Part of a land-owning family, his father fled Communist China to settle in Taiwan, where Lee was born – an ethnic outsider. Against his dad’s strenuous objections, he attended an art school in Taipei – a family outsider. Then he moved to the United States for further study in Illinois and Manhattan – an immigrant outsider. He married in New York, had children, but for six long years was unemployed and supported by his molecular-biologist wife – a social outsider. To earn a living, he returned to Taiwan to make his first three films, the so-called Father Knows Best trilogy – an Americanized outsider.
That would definitely mark a man, pushing the artist to the margins even as his art heads straight to the mainstream. Maybe that’s why actors invariably speak of Lee – a gentle yet assured fellow with a soft voice, warm brown eyes and dark hair feathered over his forehead – in tones that mix reverence with bafflement. Tobey Maguire, who starred in Ride With the Devil, captures the consensus: “He’s the great seducer. I think there are things going on in that brain we don’t really know about.”
But we do. It’s all up there on the screen, that mind, so eclectic and protean. At first glance, what’s noticeable about his films, forged in collaboration with his long-time writer James Schamus, is their sheer diversity. Vastly different genres and settings: family dramas in contemporary Taiwan (the trilogy) or in Regency England (Sense and Sensibility) or in Watergate-era Connecticut (The IceStorm); pulp fiction in comic-book land (The Hulk) or in ancient China (Crouching Tiger, HiddenDragon); a Civil War story in Missouri (Ride With the Devil) or a Second World War story in Shanghai (Lust, Caution); a modern Western in Wyoming (Brokeback Mountain); a 3-D fable in the middle of the Indian Ocean (Life of Pi).
Look more closely, however, and these broad differences give way to glaring similarities. There are thick, recurring threads in Lee’s canon that unspool directly from his own status as a sympathetic outsider bumping up against ingrained convention. Those first four pictures – the trilogy plus Sense andSensibility – all take place in a closed society whose characters are struggling to manoeuvre within a rigid social code, where many things feel right but nothing seems possible. His fifth, The Ice Storm, stands that dilemma on its head. There, post-Vietnam America has lost its moral compass and that code has completely broken down – suddenly, everything feels possible and nothing seems right.