The Courage of Ang Lee
Question: Who is the first non-American to win the Best Director Oscar at the Academy Awards? Hint: Brokeback Mountain anyone? The Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, has garnered accolades and awards for much of his work. His range is also surprising, in that he can work with and within any genre. Can you believe that the same man who filmed the soft pastels and polite dialogue of Sense and Sensibility (which by the way won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), also “unleashed the fury“ of that green giant: Hulk, (while not nominated for an Oscar, made a boatload of money). He kind of resembles Stanley Kubrick, as he dabbles in a variety of genres. Does that mean he’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none? I don’t know; you decide. One thing is for certain, though. He does not shy away from controversial material, and his courage has been deeply rewarding. Lee’s portfolio also includes: Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his latest, Lust, Caution.
The West Meets the East
Lee introduced the West to the high-flying acrobatics and martial arts wire-work that the East had been using for years, with his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, you guessed it, garnered the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year; and was nominated for Best Picture). Lee decided to film in Mandarin, the language of mainland China, rather than Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong. I remember seeing a documentary about its filming when it first came out, in which some of the actors said they needed to learn the accent and the pronunciations of this language, as it was not their native tongue. People who speak Mandarin criticized Chow Yun-Fat’s accent. Another bit of trivia: Did you know that Michelle Yeoh, who plays Yu Shu Lien, was originally trained as a dancer? The dance training perfectly compliments the beauty and grace of the fight and chase scenes, showing maybe the two disciplines are more closely related than anyone would have thought. The story is timeless and is one of those movies good for several viewings, as sublety is just waiting to be drawn out of each scene. He took a chance in making this film as authentic as possible by making the actors stretch their limits, and by making this story viable and popular to those of us in the West, a border that was otherwise almost impossible to cross.
The West is Redefined by the East
Chronologically, the next step in Lee’s rise inevitably leads us to Brokeback Mountain. Who would ever have imagined that a short story about two homosexual cowboys would be translated into film by a man from Taiwan. A film that had initial limited release, mostly reserved for the “art house theatres“ went on to play everywhere nationally. It almost defies explanation. It most definitely had its objectors, but anything outside the mainstream generally does. Do I really need to say more about this phenomenon? Okay, if you need more convincing...Heath Ledger is in it.
Wondering where Lee went after all this? He went back to China and directed Lust, Caution. While it was a sleeper hit in the U.S., this movie caused a great controversy in China. First of all, it is set in the time when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and Shanghai. Ok, no problem yet. Second, it dealt with a group of students who decide to infiltrate the occupation and take out the main bad guy, Mr.Yee (played by Tony Leung, whom you might start recognizing by now). Still no problem. Here it is: a young female character, Wang Chia-chih, seduces Mr. Yee to get closer to him and gain his trust. Problem? We, U.S. citizens and movie-goers, are used to seeing these kinds of images. Apparently, these scenes were a little too graphic for the Chinese censor board, who then decided to cut out the scenes of an objectionable nature--according to Variety, about a half hour was cut (Coonan, Clifford. “China Caution for ‘Lust’.” Variety. September 12, 2007: 30). Problem: the nature of the relationship between Wang Chia-chih and Mr. Yee is highly reliant on these scenes in question. Chinese movie-goers were confused coming out of the theatre because the ending was not logical, and made no sense because the narrative was not whole. As a result, they ended up travelling to Hong Kong to see the film in its entirety, according to Tom Plate in the San Diego Business Journal.
While the relationship is at issue, what is equally important is the history this film can teach Americans about a period in Asian history: The Sino-Japanese War. I had not heard of this conflict before – probably because you have to take a very specialized class in college, and since I wasn’t a history major, I missed that one. Lee makes the material accessible to those who are ignorant about this period in time, so do not let your lack of knowledge dissuade you from picking this one up.
Ang Lee commented (on the extras chapter on the DVD) that he felt “very proud, fortunate and devoted“ that he was given the opportunity to film this part of Chinese history. He views his role as chronicler of history, of a time that people maybe do not remember, or of a time that people do not know about, like me. He tests the viewers strength with the ability to digest his meticulous material, and does not shy away from controversy. It is usually the risk-takers that reap the rewards.
The Lure of the Short Story
Let’s compare. "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx comes in at 55 pages; "Lust, Caution" by Eileen Chang at 57 pages. Both movies are around 2 ½ hours. This is about 2 ½ minutes of running time per page of text. This ratio allows the director to take his time to tell the story, to linger on a scene or on an emotion, and therefore bring out the richness of the text. I have seen many a 500 page novel turned into a movie that runs 90 minutes. Often, the reader feels cheated, disappointed, feeling that too much was cut out. With Lee’s two short story translations, nothing is left out; everything is accentuated. Perhaps this is why Lee has achieved such high regard from the international film community – he doesn’t cheat; he doesn’t cut corners; he presents the material reverently, as a fan of the author’s, the readers’, and the viewers. We can all benefit from such a courageous and detailed director. Maybe taking more from less is a good thing.