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Ang Lee: Blending East and West

Ang Lee, the director of the much talked-about cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain is one of the biggest winners of the just-released 78th Academy Awards. The film clinched two of the Oscar prizes including the Adapted Screenplay and Original Score. Lee himself is crowned the Best Director and the honor makes him the top Asian director in Hollywood.


Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation and expansion of a short story by American writer Annie Proulx. Set in 1960s Texas and Wyoming, the movie tells the story of the homosexual relationship between two cowboys. They struggle through a painful, heart-wrenching love affair spanning decades, but their affections are eventually hampered by their heterosexual relationships with women. All they are left with are their memories of Brokeback Mountain, where they met for the first time.


The movie has proved a hit with American movie-goers, attracted by the love story's subtle nuances and the nostalgic portrayal of the old West.


As a foreign movie director, it hasn't been easy for Ang Lee to get this far.


Lee was born in 1954 in Taiwan. In 1975, he graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts, after which he went to the United States to continue his studies. There, he earned a Bachelor's Degree in Theater and a Master's in Film Production.


After graduation, Ang Lee pursued a career in the US. But as a foreign director, he found it tough going. He had to wait 6 years before he finally got his break.


Writing screenplays for directors was routine for Lee during those early years. His wife took on all the responsibility of making ends meet for the family. Years of being a house-husband made Lee a mild person with excellent cooking skills. His experiences later helped serve as subject matter for his movies. 


1990 saw a turning point in Lee's career. He entered two scripts in an official competition in Taiwan. He won both first and second places with Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet.


Pushing Hands is a comedy-drama about generational and cultural differences. Its central metaphor is the father's Tai-Chi technique of Pushing Hands. The culture clash evident when the father goes to live with his son in America and takes a shine to a Chinese cooking instructor. In the film, the father is played by Taiwan actor Sihung Lung, who also plays the patriarch in Lee's The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. Together, these three films comprise a trilogy that Lee himself calls Father Knows Best.


Pushing Hands was a big hit that also attracted considerable attention from film critics. The film earned Lee eight nominations in Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards, and he eventually won the Best Director of the Jury Prize.


Following this success, Lee decided to enter more sensitive territory. The Wedding Banquet, released in 1993, revolves around the marriage of a gay man and a Chinese immigrant arranged to please the man's elderly parents. The film uses the plot structure of an old Hollywood screwball comedy to confront issues of Chinese identity. The picture became a huge international success and established Lee as a renowned director.


The third movie in Lee's trilogy of Father Knows Best films is Eat Drink Man Woman, released in 1994. It tells the story of a famous chef in Taiwan and his three daughters as they strive to concoct a recipe for harmonious family life. Boasting a more complex screenplay and polished performances, Eat Drink Man Woman gained glowing reviews and robust box office returns.


A seemingly unlikely choice to film the screen adaptation of a classic British novel, Lee was then hired to direct Sense and Sensibility. It was his first fully English-language movie. Adapted from Jane Austen's classic and starring Emma Thompson, the movie earned rave reviews. In many ways, it has a lot in common with his earlier productions, which focus on miscommunication and the effect of a patriarch on his family. Sense and Sensibility received seven Oscar nominations, and won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.


Lee's 1997 movie The Ice Storm is an exploration of the American family in the 1970s. It revolves around a father watching the collapse of a patriarchal society. The picture looks at events from the perspectives of both the adults and the teenagers, paying particular attention to how interpersonal codes are inverted. The superb cast lent the movie as much emotional depth as you can find in a modern Greek tragedy.


Lee next undertook what is perhaps his most ambitious movie Ride With the Devil. The production is an action-packed epic set in the post-Civil War-era in America. The subject matter would have been audacious even for an American director, but Lee proved he was more than capable of mastering the theme.


Lee's next film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is considered one of his greatest works. The movie is an exciting cocktail of different genres --- historical romance, martial arts and the classic American Western --- that has had massive audience appeal. The picture caused an international sensation and earned ten Academy Award nominations. The four trophies he eventually won includes an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This makes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the first Asian film to win the Oscar. It is also the highest grossing foreign-language movie ever released in America.


In 2003, Ang Lee made a radical switch of genre with the sci-fi picture The Hulk. The movie reflects the other side of the mild director, a side full of imagination and creativity. Lee explained his thoughts on this change.


Ang Lee said: "The biggest attraction for an audience is to have something really fresh. Once you lose that, no one will appreciate your work."


Lee's latest creation is another attempt to keep things fresh. Brokeback Mountain proves again that this cross-cultural director is undoubtedly a titan of international film.


Ang Lee's Filmography


Pushing Hands (1992)
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
The Ice Storm (1997)
Ride with the Devil (1999)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The Hulk (2003)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)


(CCTV March 14, 2006)

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