One of the world's leading directors, Ang Lee talks about the city's film festival, his headmaster father and his forthcoming Shanghai-set film, an adaptation of an Eileen Chang story.
Ang Lee is the first person to win a prize - the "Overseas Contribution Award for Chinese Films" - at the 9th Shanghai International Film Festival, and the Taiwanese director is without doubt one of the festival's most famous guests even among the crowd of international and domestic stars.
After winning the Best Director Award for Brokeback Mountain at this year's Academy Awards, the 51-year-old Lee is now considered the pride of the Chinese film industry.
When he took the "Overseas Contribution Award" from veteran Chinese director Xie Jin, Lee couldn't help but recall his less-than-successful acting experience in Xie's film, The Last Aristocrats.
"That was when I had just graduated from school in the 1980s. Unfortunately, my scene was cut possibly due to my poor acting," he says, laughing.
Lee also praised the high quality of the organization behind the Shanghai International Film Festival. "I am impressed that so many prestigious film stars and VIPs have been invited here," he says.
Although now based in Hollywood, Lee has a deep affection for Chinese culture. "I was born in Taiwan, but my mother is from Jiangxi Province and my father from Beijing," says Lee. "So I was intensively trained with Chinese traditions and I hope this shows through in my work."
Lee reveals that he started watching the films of Hong Kong director Lee Han Chiang, King Hu and Taiwan's Lee Hsing. "When I was studying in America, I started watching Chinese mainland films by director Xie. I like his films such as Horseman, Hibiscus Town and Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain, which were all made in Shanghai, the cradle of the Chinese film industry and also the 'Hollywood of the Orient' at the time."
Lee plans to stay in Shanghai for six days. After attending the film fest's International Film Forum, which discussed the relationship between Chinese and Hollywood films, Lee also talked with students from Fudan University's Shanghai Institute of Visual Art on Sunday.
The lecture room in suburban Songjiang District was packed with students eager to listen to the world-class director talking about his filmmaking experiences.
During the casual meeting, Lee passionately recalled his own school life. "The high school I was in is the best one in Taiwan, and my father was the principle at the time. So you can imagine the big pressure that I had from both my father and the fierce competition in getting into universities," says Lee. "Later I started to learn art, but my parents objected. My father had always thought that I should have been a teacher. He only encouraged me in my film career once I was shooting."
Though his family were opposed, in 1973 the then-19-year-old surprised his parents by heading to Taipei to study acting. Five years later, he moved to the United States to further pursue his studies. Following his graduation from the University of Illinois, he went east to New York University, where he began his moviemaking career.
Lee once worked in Spike Lee's Joe's Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads in 1982 as assistant to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. His own shorts, Dim Lake (1983) and Fine Line (1984) earned prizes and led to representation by the esteemed William Morris Agency.
But then he entered a downturn. For five years, Lee struggled to get projects off the ground, at the same time playing house-husband taking care of his two sons, while his wife, microbiologist Jane Lin, was the bread-winner.
Fortunately in 1990, Lee got a break. He participated in a competition in Taiwan and finally won the top two prizes with Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. Both films, along with Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), find their central metaphor in food, and formed what Lee called his Father Knows Best trilogy.
Pushing Hands (1991) examines the cultural clashes that occur when a father comes to live with his son in America and he takes a shine to a Chinese cooking instructor; The Wedding Banquet is about a marriage of convenience between a gay man and a Chinese immigrant arranged in large part to please the man's parents; Eat Drink Man Woman, which also won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film, tells the story of a father - a renowned Taiwanese cook - and his three daughters as they strive to concoct a recipe for harmonious living. With a touching plot and polished performances, Eat Drink Man Woman opened to laudatory reviews and robust box-office returns.
As to what the core of a film is, Lee says it's always the script. "The story is very important. It should be distinctive or with a new angle, otherwise how can it keep exciting for a group of people (the film crew) for a year-long shooting period?" he asks.
"Currently in China, what we lack most is a good script with which actors can find strong roles to play and directors can shoot good films. I think directors should also take part in the work of writing scripts," adds Lee who has regular scriptwriters - an American scriptwriter for English scripts, who is teaching drama in Columbia University, and a Chinese scriptwriter from Taiwan for Chinese scripts.
Talking about China's art films and commercial movies, Lee thinks the industry still has a long way to go. "The format of filmmaking has long been set by the West. Chinese films need time to combine the local culture with the Western routines," he says. "Though Chinese filmmaking now has a history of 100 years, it still lags behind America which is a similar age.
"I don't doubt the talent of Chinese directors, but it's our culture that is being changed. We should realize it's our own responsibility," he says, adding that director Feng Xiaogang - also vice president of the jury panel of the Shanghai International Film Festival - is the only one who has "seized the knack of making successful commercial films."
Asked about his next project Lust, Caution, adapted from a short story by the late Chinese female writer Eileen Chang (1920-95) who once lived in Shanghai, Lee effuses enthusiastically about his strong fondness for the original story and the author.
"Normally the stories about fighting the Japanese army at that time are passionate and patriotic, but Chang had her own view and angle," he reveals. "I am so impressed and curious that she wrote about a girl student who tries to seduce and assassinate a Chinese spy working for the Japanese government. I think it's the perfect story."
Lee says short stories are the perfect length for making a film: "I will have more space and time to organize the story in my film and I will add more dramatic details."
During his brief stay in town, Lee's biggest task is searching for the shooting location and leading actress for the film.
Who will be the leading male character? There are rumors that Hong Kong star Tong Leung will take the part but Lee will only say Leung is a great actor. "I will announce the leading actor in my film after I find the leading actress," he smiles.
"I feel so honored coming to Shanghai, that I'm going to direct Chang's work and that I will shoot the Shanghai of the golden period between the 1930s and the 1940s," he concludes.
(Shanghai Daily June 20, 2006)