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Life Before Pi: The Brilliant Films Of Ang Lee

Last updated on: November 27, 2012 15:01 IST

Life Before Pi: The Brilliant Films Of Ang Lee

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

It did not come easy for Ang Lee.

Today, the 58-year old Taiwan-born Oscar winning filmmaker, the man and the energy behind Life of Pi, is widely recognised as one of the leading directors in the world.

But he had to go through six years of struggle after graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. 

He had an undergraduate degree from University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and a short film that he made upon graduation with his Tisch classmate Spike Lee. But in a reflection of the fact that Hollywood and even the American indie film industry does not easily open its arms to foreign filmmakers, Lee had to seek financing for his first film from a Chinese production company. 

That film Pushing Hands (1992) -- a charming small film about immigration, and generational and cultural clashes set in New York City -- was seen by few in the US. The next year, he directed The Wedding Banquet, a film that had a much wider reach especially at film festivals.

By then he was in his late-30s and he has referred to himself as a late bloomer. Throughout his career, he has also been an outsider, and has used that to his advantage in his non-Chinese films.

Life of Pi is Lee's 12th feature. The film has received critical acclaim especially for its exceptional use of CGI and 3D technology, and is considered a frontrunner in the Oscar race.

Unlike his peers, Lee has had one of the most diverse careers, with a wide range of films exploring the human conditions in so many different worlds. He is a great storyteller. The world that he creates is filled with good, warm-hearted people, whose intentions are always noble. There are no villains in Lee's universe. 

He has mostly had successes -- critical and box office, although there have been a couple of disasters along the way. When his 2003 introspective look at a comic character Hulk flopped at the box office, Lee went through depression and even began to question whether filmmaking was the right profession for him. 

We are grateful to him that he stuck to his passion of filmmaking. Here's looking at some of his brilliant movies.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

A young gay couple -- a Chinese man and his American partner -- live in New York City.

All is fine, except the Chinese man has not come out to his parents. And then the elderly parents decide to take a trip to New York with a hope to arrange their son's wedding.

A marriage of convenience is planned which results in quite unexpected complications. 

The Wedding Banquet is very likable film, at times hilarious, but Lee is very caring and respectful towards his characters. The cultural details -- including an elaborate wedding banquet in Chinatown, with a Chinese bride, her bridegroom and his lover, give the film a rich tone, rare for a small independent film.


Image: A scene from The Wedding Banquet. Inset: Ang Lee


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Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

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A senior Chinese chef (Lee's favorite Taiwanese actor Shihung Lung, who also played the father's roles in his first two films and then appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) lives with his three unmarried daughters.

The three women are charting their own paths, often against their father's wishes.

Food and family gatherings are the central part of the film where much of the action takes place. There are some terrific moments of food being cooked. 

This time, Lee takes the generational conflicts in a traditional society directly to his homeland, making a very modern day Chinese film, balancing the need for change with the sense of holding on to some of the old ways of life.


Image: A scene from Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)


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Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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Sense and Sensibility is a delightful and wonderfully written adaptation of the Jane Austen classic with a terrific star cast -- Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her screenplay), a young Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. 

Lee's transition from making a very Chinese film to a very English classical tale was a clear indication that the filmmaker was up for many challenges and he wanted to approach different genres with his utmost sincerity. 

In her hilarious acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Thompson read what would have been Jane Austen's report about the awards.

'Mr Ang Lee,' Thompson spoke in Austen's voice, 'of foreign extraction, who most unexpectedly appeared to understand me better than I understand myself.'

In her joke, Thompson expressed a very important point -- the outsider in Lee had successfully prevailed in capturing a tale far removed from his cultural comfort zone.


Image: A scene from Sense and Sensibility


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The Ice Storm (1997)

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In one of Lee's strongest films -- this one based on a novel by Rick Moody -- we are thrown into a very American world.
 
The year is 1973 and the characters are all white, upper middle-class, who reside in the upscale suburban town of New Canaan, Connecticut.
 
In the backdrop of the Watergate hearing, Lee gives us a glance into the lives of two dysfunctional families. The ethical values of American politics has been torn apart. In a parallel universe in New Canaan, the moral fabric of the Lee's protagonists is also being shredded into pieces.

On the surface The Ice Storm -- with a huge star cast (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood) -- appears to be a comedy. But it is eventually a tragic film, a rare insightful window into life in America that few American filmmakers have captured with such honesty.

Image: A scene from The Ice Storm


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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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After the disastrous Ride With The Devil in 1999 (the film earned less than a million dollars in the US), Lee went back to Chinese cinema giving us an amazing tale of honour, loyalty, ancient warriors, swords and flying fighters.  
 
But in a twist to the old story from China, Lee makes his warriors strong women, giving the film a definite feminist edge.

With a big star cast from China -- Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, CTHD was the first of the artistically made martial arts films for the audience in the west (Zhang Yimou's Hero opened two years later).
 
More important, this huge commercial film did what was expected of it in the US. It crossed-over beyond the art-house theatres making it big box office success -- the only foreign language subtitled film to gross over $120 million in the US alone, more than double the amount earned by the second film in the list, Life is Beautiful.

CTHD won four Oscars, including for best foreign language film, score and cinematography and established Lee as an A-list director. It is unfortunate that his next film Hulk (2003) was a big box office failure.

Image: A scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


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Brokeback Mountain (2005)

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Lee worked with authors Annie Proulx (adapting her own short story) and the western master Larry McMurtry to create a quiet, heartbreaking love story between two gay cowboys.  
 
Set in the breathtaking mountains of Wyoming (it was shot north of the border in the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta, Canada), Brokeback Mountain was one of the rare American mainstream films with big name stars -- Heath Ledger (in surely the best performance of his short career), Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, to take up a gay love story, without sensationalizing the issues it raised.

Brokeback won Lee his best director Oscar. The film also won the golden statuettes for its score and adapted screenplay. 
 
But in a controversial decision, the best picture Oscar went to an over-the-top, almost cliched, Los Angeles-based film Crash.
 
Critics pointed out to the latent homophobia among the otherwise liberal Academy members but the snub to Brokeback will go down as one of the worst decisions in history of Hollywood film awards.

Image: A scene from Brokeback Mountain


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Lust, Caution (2007)

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In this thrilling Chinese film set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China, Lee evoked a wondrous world of espionage, love and betrayal.
 
A film rich in costumes, sets and production design, Love, Caution was replete with some very graphic and honest sex scenes.

With a cast of young, relatively new actors and one major Chinese star, Tony Leung, Lust, Caution is a beautiful foreign language film. Unlike Lee's last Chinese film CTHD, Lust, Caution did small business in the US, grossing approximately $6 million.  It remains one of Lee's lesser-appreciated films, but it certainly deserves a wider acceptance.

Image: A scene from Lust, Caution

Tags: Tony Leung , CTHD , Lee , China , US

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Taking Woodstock (2009)

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Lee was back to explore another iconic period in the modern history of America -- this time the much celebrated (and often maligned and criticised) Woodstock concert, the height of hippie, free love and drugs culture, coupled with some of the best live popular musical acts of the last century.
 
Taking Woodstock is inspired by the true story about a young man, who, in order to save his parents' motel in the Catskills Mountains, sets into motion the festival that brought half a million people to a private farm in upstate New York.

Critics were not kind to Taking Woodstock, and it does come across as a minor film in Lee's otherwise exceptional career. But it is a whole lot of entertaining fun, and a good window into what the 1969 Woodstock event may have been like.

Image: A scene from Taking Woodstock


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