The Films of Ang Lee
As we celebrate film festivals here at Rough Cut this month, it’s the perfect time to look back at the (ongoing) career of Ang Lee — the filmmaker who, with two Golden Lions from Venice and two Golden Bears from Berlin, holds the distinction of being the most decorated director of the “Big Three” European film festivals.
If you read our Martin Scorsese retrospective, you may remember that we try to make our “rankings” (an inherently silly project) a little more interesting: instead of a number list from 14 to 1, I’ve placed Lee’s feature films into thematic groupings, then ranked those groups based on how artistically successful I find each collection to be on balance. This whole endeavor is of course completely subjective, but — ideally — can prompt some additional perspective about an auteur’s trajectory. That being said, let’s start with the bottom of the barrel:
Tier 6: Not Quite My Tempo
Taking Woodstock (2009)
This is the only film Lee has made that I really don’t care for. Taking Woodstock unfortunately suffers from a terminal case of being incredibly boring, something you can’t say about a single other film in Lee’s filmography. Much of the blame can be lain at the feet of frequent collaborator James Schamus, whose screenplay simply can’t figure out how to make a Woodstock movie with no Woodstock interesting, but Lee can’t fully escape responsibility. Everything in the film — including lead Demetri Martin — is so severely understated that there’s no emotional or technical core to latch on to. Easily Lee’s most anonymous film and thus his weakest.
Tier 5: OK Computer
Life of Pi (2012), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), Gemini Man (2019)
Ang Lee’s second Best Director Oscar for Life of Pi was, in retrospect, what many might now see as the beginning of the end. At the time, Pi was rightfully lauded as an impressive technical achievement and as good an adaptation as you could expect from a popular but structurally difficult novel. Not an inaccurate assessment, but what it now fairly clearly represents is the tipping point of Lee’s obsession with technological advancement — his more restrained use of VFX trickery in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, among others, suddenly gave way to the notion of technology bringing the movies closer to what we’d think of as “reality.” Lee followed up the comprehensive CGI in Life of Pi with experiments in filming in 3D, 4K, high frame rate, and (in the case of Gemini Man) de-aging technology. Both Gemini Man and Billy Lynn have a lot going for them, but the high frame rate in particular is so distracting in its creation of a hypersmooth “soap opera effect” that it subsumes narrative and character. Having seen both films in the preferred theatrical format and not since, I can’t help but feel like they probably play better at a regular old 24 frames per second: Lee hasn’t lost his humanist touch, but he’s currently insisting on obscuring it.
Tier 4: Father Knows Best
Pushing Hands (1991), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Hulk (2003)
Usually the informal “Father Knows Best” trilogy encompasses Lee’s first three films, but I’ve swapped out 1993’s The Wedding Banquet for arguably the most father-centric of all Lee’s work, 2003’s Hulk. Unfairly maligned even now, Hulk takes the seed of Pushing Hands and Eat Drink Man Woman — the relationship between father and child, often seemingly burdensome to the latter — and zigs where the first two zagged, crafting a film not about generational acceptance but about generational trauma. Nolte gives an appropriately high octane performance as Hulk’s insane father, the flip side of the masterfully quiet work of the great Sihung Lung, the paternal figure for Lee’s three early films. Both are excellent in wildly different modes and highlight Lee’s control of tone, his skill with actors, and the fact that every movie he makes — even those about giant green gamma ray monsters — is rooted in a canny understanding of the complexity of human relationships.
Tier 3: American Psychos
The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999)
From the outside, the settings of these two films couldn’t appear more different — in The Ice Storm, we have the Connecticut suburbs of the early 1970s, while Ride with the Devil takes place on the southern backlines of the American Civil War. But you can ultimately boil both down to a very similar premise: well-to-do white people completely coming apart at the seams. That’s an oversimplification of course, but one that speaks to Lee’s impressive grasp of cultural specificity regardless of place and time and his ability to ground period pieces of all sorts within a modern understanding. Funnily enough, when I was pairing these films I didn’t think about the fact that they represent the entirety of Ang Lee’s collaboration with Tobey Maguire, but it’s probably not quite the coincidence it seems on paper. Both Storm and Devil rely on presenting an image of young, disaffected, and toxic masculinity — the type of character that happens to fit right into Maguire’s actorly sweet spot. Lee’s no stranger to wrangling great performances from his actors, but being able to tap into something so specific so early in a young actor’s career is yet another feather in the director’s cap.
Tier 2: Family Matters
The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1995)
If you’ve seen The Wedding Banquet, it should come as no surprise that Lee turned out to be the perfect fit for a Jane Austen adaptation. Both films succeed not because of the social dramedy at the forefront, but because they understand family dynamics, the complexities of marriage, and how breakable or unbreakable those types of bonds can truly be. In some ways, the two films are inverses: where Banquet shows the strain one’s family can have on a romantic relationship, Sense and Sensibility emphasizes the ways in which romance can impact a family. But Lee — a true romantic at heart, I think — makes it clear in each that these two aspects of life can and should coexist, no matter how stressful one or the other might be. The key, of course, is communication, which Lee cannily grasps is both the easiest and the hardest activity in the world. If you just talk to your partner, your parents, your sister, or your love interest, things would go a lot smoother — but then, I suppose, we might not have the makings of a great movie.
Tier 1: Love Hurts
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007)
For me, the three best films in an overall superb and varied filmography. Much ink has been spilled over the beauty and the pain of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, two achingly gorgeous films about romantic repression that I think many would agree with me stand as Lee’s masterpieces, but I feel I may be in the minority with my adoration of Lust, Caution. Despite winning the Golden Lion at Venice and cleaning up at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, Lust, Caution made little impact stateside (likely partially due to being slapped with an NC-17 rating for its explicit sex scenes), and doesn’t seem to have gained much of a second life in the decade and a half since. That’s a damn shame, because the film — a Notorious-esque tale of an assassination plot during the Japanese occupation of China in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s — is as engrossing as anything Lee has ever made, with phenomenal performances by Tang Wei and the great Tony Leung. While the romance at the center of Lust, Caution is much darker and more complex than those in Crouching Tiger or Brokeback Mountain, Lee still brings his characteristic humanist touch to the proceedings, pushing us into a level of intimacy that makes it impossible to leave the theatre unaffected by what we saw. Lee, more than most, understands that love is a force of nature that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart; his greatness stems from his ability to use the movies to make us confront the reality that love, even in its most devastating forms, is something we simply cannot live without.