The most acclaimed and famous director to emerge from the tiny island of Taiwan has gained a reputation for methodically devouring all known film genres. He is also tipped for Oscar success with his latest film Brokeback Mountain. I am, of course, referring to Ang Lee. Born in Pingtung, a coastal county in Southern Taiwan, and educated in the US , Ang Lee is currently at the top of his game in the realm of the Hollywood director. His rise to the upper echelons of the Hollywood elite has been consistent and unfaltering, with a CV of films that reads as a shining example to a form of cinema that is both artistic and entertaining.
Ang Lee's first three films operated as a trilogy of unconnected family drama's that focussed on cross-cultural and cross-generational issues. Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) became known as the 'father knows best' trilogy, three films that place Taiwanese families in foreign or unfamiliar environments with the stresses of modern day living. Both Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet are set in America . The differences between the Chinese way of life and Western living are explored, as is the clash between tradition and modernity through the two generations in the families. The strained relationship between the son and his father in Ang's films has been attributed to his own problematic dealings with his father. Through his early work it seems that Ang dealt with his own demons on screen and used filmmaking as a form of self-therapy. Ang's take on the traditional family unit in the modern world is explored thematically through Tai Chi (Pushing Hands), sexuality (The Wedding Banquet) and food (Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) respectively.
The Wedding Banquet is the film that put Ang Lee on the international map as a 'transnational' director, a filmmaker who was able to take the pulse of a globalised world and appeal to a broad international audience with films that transcend national boundaries. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman won further praise from both sides of the globe, thrusting Ang further up the directorial ladder, opening the door to film projects with bigger budgets and wider distribution possibilities.
After thoroughly examining the Taiwanese family drama, Ang took an unexpected leap into an unfamiliar and culturally specific genre: the British costume drama. Not only was it a British costume drama, it was also an adaptation of an English literary classic. When the announcement came that a little known Taiwanese director was to take on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility surprised eyebrows were raised all round. The resulting success of the film indicated that Ang's had the credentials to operate as a director who could cross genres and produce films of quality and distinction, despite the perceived problem of his 'otherness'.
Ang Lee's career from here on in becomes an unpredictable and ever-changing journey through a variety of established film genres. In 1997 he directed Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm , a slice of 1970's American suburbia that harked back to his roots in the family drama. Ride With The Devil (1999) focussed on the American Civil War, a period piece starring Tobey Maguire and the singer Jewel. The film that ultimately shot Ang Lee to worldwide fame saw him return home to his Chinese roots. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) started out as a hit film in regional and art house cinema's. Packed cinema's and continuous runs demanded international attention that has since elevated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into its current position as one of the most successful subtitled films ever. A revived and updated wuxia film, Crouching Tiger put the spotlight on Chinese cinema and has been partly responsible for the current Western obsession with Asian cinema in general and mainstream success of films such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).
Ang Lee triumphantly returned to Hollywood after the success of Crouching Tiger and took on the huge prospect of converting the comic book character of The Hulk onto the big screen. Ang chose to explore the conflict between Bruce Banner and the green monster rather than follow the path of the other superhero films that were released around the same time. After a huge marketing campaign, The Hulk did well at the box office but received mixed reviews from the press and critics.
Ang's latest foray into classic American genres has resulted in the revisionist Western film Brokeback Mountain starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. The film explores the gay relationship between two cowboys who work together out in wilds of the American West. The subject matter has brought a few stifled gasps, as Ang is the first director to ever challenge the intense masculinity that embodies the classic Western. Ang himself has stated that his interest, like in all of his films, lies in human relationships rather than challenging cinematic stereotypes. What Brokeback Mountain does highlight further is Ang Lee's ability to constantly change direction and take on established genres with a fresh approach. His ability to analyse people and the way they interact with each other is perhaps his raison d'etre , a skill that has permeated all of his films and marks them with a certain quality that is often hard to find elsewhere. Where he will go next is anyone's guess. Rumours of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon prequel, a Harry Houdini bio-pic and a film set in the Second World War have so far proved unfounded. Whether it's a gangster film, a musical or a romantic comedy, I'm sure that Ang Lee's next effort will continue in the same vein as his other well-loved films.