Obviously, in Ride With the Devil, domestic strife inflates into a full-blown civil war, but again Lee, the outcast general, looks on from the periphery. The Missouri/Kansas setting is on the margins of the major battles, and marginalized too are the protagonists, none more so than the deeply conflicted black man who finds himself fighting for the South against his own cause – that’s a degree of ethical complexity not found in Lincoln.
The divided self turns pulpy and comic in The Hulk (where Ang and Stan Lee meet), only to grow profoundly serious again in Brokeback Mountain. This wasn’t Lee’s first use of a gay character at odds with himself and his surroundings – that was in The Wedding Banquet. But now he brings the gay theme to the cowboys of the American West, and to that peculiarly American paradox they embody. Each cowboy is a free spirit; yet all cowboys are bonded males ruled by a collective code – it’s rugged individualism versus the melting pot. Again, the outsider must find his way in the censuring group.
So when a pair of cowboys bond really closely, their love is simultaneously a testament to the tradition of individualism and a violation of the group code. Only in paradise, among the pastoral sheep atop the mountain, can such a paradox be resolved. Yet paradise is a fleeting illusion here, trumped by harsh social reality. As cowboy Ennis concedes: “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.” The line echoes the last words of the weary soldier in Ride With the Devil, “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong. It just is,” and points to a stoic fatalism that has always dominated Lee’s sense and sensibility.
Paradise may be an illusion, but art isn’t – or, at least, it’s an illusion of a different sort, whose necessary deceptions mirror life’s multiple deceits. Lee once remarked: “Sometimes I feel illusions are life’s essence. I can trust them even more than real life that’s full of deceit and covering up.” You can see him working through this notion, albeit clumsily, in Lust, Caution, where a drama student uses her theatre arts to vanquish the villain of the piece. But it’s not until Life of Pi that he discovers a vehicle suited to his view – in fact, suited in every way to all his recurring tropes.
So the magic realism of Yann Martel’s novel, thought to be unfilmable, finds the perfect director at the perfect point in his development. The domestic strife is there again, between father and son, between the cold reason of age and the passionate mysticism of youth. And, certainly, no one could be more of a drifter than a boy in a rudderless boat on the wide ocean, where nature’s constant violence vies with the kid’s wavering faith.
This time, Lee’s stylistic virtuosity, so gloriously displayed in the dream-like aerial ballets of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is rooted in the very substance of the tale. Now the tiger – and the mountainous waves and the breaching whales and the phosphorescent sea aglow in the moonlight – all look acutely real precisely because they’re the product of Lee’s cinematic magic. And that same magic lies at the thematic heart of the picture, urging us to to believe that fable can tell a better story than fact – yes, that art’s illusions can be entertainingly, instructively redemptive.
In practical terms, Lifeof Pi is exactly the movie that Hollywood longs to make these days: a big-budget, 3-D experience that’s entirely unique to the medium and that speaks profitably to a global audience. But (magically) it’s also a small, personal film, an epic on a postage stamp that speaks specifically to Lee’s outsider vision and enduring beliefs.
Just how enduring can be seen in a charming YouTube video where the director cites a film that he stumbled upon as an 18-year-old, the film that gave an awkward boy his transformative sense of purpose. It was Ingmar Bergman’s A Virgin Spring, another canvas where horrific violence keeps company with serene quiet, the brutality of man with the silence of God. Lee talks about the film eloquently, appreciatively, taking comfort even in its uncomfortable truths. And later, in the same grateful tone, he talks about the career it inspired: “Every movie I make, that’s my hideout, the place I don’t quite understand but feel most at home.”
Home, at last, and our question is answered. Ang Lee is less visible outside his movies because he truly lives within them. Work is his only home, and his home is only an illusion. But what a potent illusion. In the Life of Ang, that’s his hearth, that’s where, finally, the drifting stops.