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Film director Ang Lee.Ryan Carter

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.

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.

Until lately.

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.

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