Ang Lee has been making movies for over three decades. That is an impressive career. That the majority of those films are good (and some are amazing) puts him on a whole other level. Born in Taiwan, the Republic of China, and educated in the United States, Lee has made extremely Chinese films and extremely American films, as well as some that mix the two cultures — plus the occasional excursion to the United Kingdom or India for a literary adaptation. But wherever his films take place, and no matter who stars in them, Ang Lee is always interested in what's under the surface of his characters — in people's emotional lives, their feelings for others, and what they keep hidden from the world.
Family has been an omnipresent theme in Lee's work since he kicked off his career with three movies in a row about dads. Sexuality also comes up a lot in relations between men and women and in queer relationships, which Lee took an interest in long before most other straight filmmakers of his generation. Wherever people come together and feelings get messy, Ang Lee is there to make a movie. If he seems to accidentally direct a film about a cloned government agent or a tiger on a boat, then that's perhaps the inevitable side effect of such a long and diverse career.
Gemini Man (2019)
The premise has potential. "Gemini Man" follows a military intelligence agent, played by Will Smith, who encounters an enemy assassin who appears to be a younger version of him. Indeed, Smith plays "Junior" as well, aided by motion capture, CGI, and thousands of hours of archive footage of young Will Smith. It turns out there's cloning involved, and Junior has been raised by a very shady Clive Owen, who lied to him about his origins. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong round out the cast, but the story never seems worthy of their talents or the interesting elevator pitch, for that matter.
"Gemini Man" wasn't Ang Lee's first action movie, but it's easily his least interesting. The script, which had been floating around unmade since 1997, wastes too much time on spy movie clichés to fully explore the implications regarding identity and nature vs. nurture that seem to have drawn Lee to the project. The movie is also shot at 120 frames per second, as opposed to the 24 frames per second of most feature films, giving it a hyper-detailed video look that has never caught on with critics or audiences, even as it continues to fascinate some directors. That frame rate was a major factor in criticisms of the movie, as was its lack of a compelling script.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016)
"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" was also shot at 120 frames per second, despite being primarily a drama rather than an action movie. It was the first movie ever shot at such a high frame rate, exceeding the 48 frames per second of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy (which is already twice that of most movies). Unfortunately, Ang Lee seems to be the only person who thought it made sense to film "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" that way. After all, it's a relatively small, focused human drama about a young soldier dealing with the emotional fallout of the Iraq War while he and his squad are celebrated as heroes at a Texas football game. The visual flourishes come when he flashes back to the experiences that led him here, but it's often more distracting than enlightening.
Unfortunately, the story also fails to impress. To begin with, the American public was, frankly, kind of over Iraq War stories by 2016. In particular, the many people who now question that conflict are going to have a hard time with a story about a heroic young soldier who chooses to return to the war at the end of the movie, despite being offered an honorable discharge.
On the other hand, newcomer Joe Alwyn received praise for his performance as Billy, and Kristen Stewart is solid as always as his sister. Beyond them, however, there's just not much to recommend this movie.
Taking Woodstock (2009)
"Taking Woodstock" is based on the memoir of the same name by Elliot Tiber, who played a role in making the legendary 1969 Woodstock music festival happen. He had already obtained a permit to host a small music festival at his parents' motel in Bethel, New York. When he heard that the Woodstock organizers had been denied their planned location just a month before showtime, he offered them his permit and the use of the motel. According to Tiber's book and this movie, he also connected them with the farmer whose land ultimately held the legendary festival. Others dispute this, but even if Tiber exaggerated his involvement in Woodstock a bit, his story could still be an interesting lens through which to view a specific moment in American history, and Woodstock serves as a resonant background for the story of Tiber's coming of age and accepting his gay identity.
Unfortunately, the movie never lives up to that premise. Ang Lee is so disinterested in the Woodstock festival that there's never a shot of a band on stage. Even though the concert happens during the film, it's always conveniently just off-screen. The film spends far more time focused on comedian Demetri Martin as Tiber, which is a shame because he never seems like anybody other than Demetri Martin.
2003's "Hulk" existed in a world before "Iron Man" and even before "Batman Begins." Comic book movies were around, and Marvel-based films, in particular, were gaining momentum in the wake of "X-Men" and "Spider-Man," but they weren't a proven commodity. They still represented a genre that Hollywood was trying to get a handle on, and there were plenty of misses along with the hits. "Hulk" isn't precisely a miss (at least, it's not one of the biggest ones), but it represents a stab at superhero filmmaking that's miles beyond what would become the consensus about how the genre works best.
The script of "Hulk" is all about Bruce's issues with his mentally ill father, who, late in the film, becomes a version of the Absorbing Man (a completely different character in the comics). Comic book fans didn't know what to make of all the family drama, and everybody else had questions about the gigantic green CGI monster running around. Both types of viewers could presumably agree that having the Hulk fight hulked-out dogs was a questionable decision. Years later, even Ang Lee is conflicted about how this movie turned out.
Life Of Pi (2012)
The novel "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel seemed like it might be unfilmable. It's as interested in philosophy and the nature of truth as it is in plot and character, and its signature sequence is about a boy trapped on a lifeboat at sea with a tiger for the better part of a year. But as we've already seen on this list, Ang Lee has always been interested in unique filmmaking challenges, so he decided to direct "Life of Pi" — tiger, boat, and all. The result is a visually impressive, if somewhat ponderous, epic that indeed co-stars a tiger (although it almost drowned during production).
At the time of its release, the film was well-received by critics. It sits at 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. A decade later, however, it never seems to come up in discussions of great movies of the 2010s. With the initial buzz gone, nobody seems particularly interested in watching a kid float aimlessly on a boat with a tiger, regardless of how interesting they try to make the question of whether it ever even happened. Still, for anyone who enjoyed the novel, Lee's film should live up to their expectations.
Ride With The Devil (1999)
As we progress to the end of this list, we arrive at some films from much earlier in Ang Lee's career. "Ride with the Devil" came out in 1999 and stars a pre-"Spider-Man" Toby Maguire as a young man who becomes a guerrilla fighter for the Confederacy, despite having no particular investment in their pro-slavery politics. Along the way, he sees his lifelong friend (Skeet Ulrich) die, falls in love (with Jewel in a rare movie role), and becomes friends with a free Black man (Jeffrey Wright), who strangely finds himself fighting on the same side. For these characters, the war is all about avenging the brutality done to them by inflecting more brutality on their enemies. However, the constant violence becomes too much, and the remaining guerrillas devolve into criminal raiders, leaving Maguire and Wright to let go of the war and find their own peace.
The film got mixed reviews, although its realism was broadly praised. As Roger Ebert put it, "'Ride With the Devil' does not have conventional rewards or payoffs, does not simplify a complex situation, doesn't punch up the action or the romance simply to entertain. But it is, sad to say, not a very entertaining movie; it's a long slog unless you're fascinated by the undercurrents."
Lust, Caution (2007)
Ang Lee returned to Chinese themes for 2007's "Lust, Caution," an intense tale about sex, love, and gender during wartime. Based on a story by Eileen Chang, the film follows a young Chinese woman named Chia Chi (Tang Wei), who is tasked with seducing Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), an agent of Japan's puppet government during World War II, so that her allies can assassinate him. As their relationship becomes more affectionate, she develops feelings for Yee. Ultimately, she warns him at the moment before the planned assassination, leading to her death and the deaths of her allies.
The film explores Chia Chi's relationship with her sexuality and her conflicted feelings about using sex in the service of her country. Archaic male attitudes toward sex are also on display, and Yee's first sexual encounter with Chia Chi is rape. That the story progresses from there to Chia Chi falling for him has made the movie controversial among some viewers, and the rape scene itself can be hard to watch regardless. The movie was much more controversial because the explicit scenes are largely absent in Chang's original story.
However, Ang Lee certainly isn't an exploitation filmmaker, and even if you don't like what the film has to say about sex and gender (or if you find the message muddled), there's no doubt that Lee came to the project with something to say.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Pushing Hands (1991)
"Pushing Hands" was Ang Lee's first feature, and his great promise as a filmmaker is already on display, as is his interest in familial relationships and cultural differences between China and the United States. The focus is Chu (Sihung Lung), an elderly Chinese Tai Chi master who has moved to New York City to live with his son Alex's family. Chu doesn't speak English, so he has a hard time communicating with most people in the city, including his son's American wife, Martha (Deb Snyder). He teaches Tai Chi at the Chinese Cultural Center, where he hits it off with an elderly widow named Mrs. Chen (Wang Lai). Feeling obligated to move out of his son's place, Chu gets a job as a dishwasher, but his boss is an abusive jerk. When his boss eventually tries to fire him, Chu refuses to move and uses Tai Chi to fend off anyone who tries to move him. Chu is arrested, but fortunately, that leads to a reconciliation with his son and renewed popularity for his Tai Chi classes.
"Pushing Hands" is a small movie compared to Lee's future work. It's not just the lower budget. The film seems very contained and focused on its characters and their day-to-day lives, particularly Mr. Chu. Nevertheless, there's a visual flair and an interest in the feelings people sublimate indicative of everything that would follow.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Arriving in 1997, "The Ice Storm" proved that Ang Lee could apply the same sensitive hand for depicting family dynamics to upper-class white families. Based on a 1994 novel set in 1973, this indie drama focuses on the Hood family and their neighbors, the Carvers, as both families struggle against the social and geopolitical malaise of that era. Patriarch Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with neighbor Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while both of their spouses (Joan Allen and Jamey Sheridan) find their marriages equally dissatisfying. Teenage Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) is experimenting sexually with multiple people, including both sons of the Carver family (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd). Meanwhile, older brother Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is off at boarding school pursuing a girl (Katie Holmes) who's probably out of his league. When an ice storm hits the neighborhood on Thanksgiving weekend, all the drama is brought to a head, and at least one character doesn't live through it.
The cast is impressive, especially the younger actors that include a pre-"Lord of the Rings" Elijah Wood, pre-"Spider-Man" Tobey Maguire, pre-"Dawson's Creek" Katie Holmes, and Christina Ricci just as she was on the verge of becoming an indie film darling (within the next year she'd star in "The Opposite of Sex," "Buffalo '66," and "Pecker"). With veterans like Weaver, Kline, and Allen leading the way, the ensemble carries the weight of the drama, and no word rings false. Plus, Ang Lee's trademark visual style is all over the film, especially when the titular storm transforms the wealthy Connecticut suburb into a nightmarish winter wonderland.
The Wedding Banquet (1993)
In 1993, it was still rare for a movie to center on queer characters, and an American film about a queer person of color was almost unheard of. Ang Lee was already treading that ground in his second feature, "The Wedding Banquet." The film focuses on Gao Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a young gay Taiwanese immigrant in New York City who lives with Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), his white American partner. However, he has never come out to his parents, who still live in Taiwan and long for him to marry a lady and have kids. Gao decides to marry Wei Wei (May Chin), a poor young artist from mainland China who needs a Green Card, but things get complicated when his parents arrive with plans to throw a huge feast to celebrate the wedding.
In addition to its deft handling of immigrant community dynamics, "The Wedding Banquet" treats its gay characters with nuance and respect, something not that many straight filmmakers were interested in doing 30 years ago. On top of that, it remains a fun indie comedy with some real dramatic weight behind its laughs.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
1994's "Eat Drink Man Woman" was Ang Lee's breakout film in the United States, which is ironic since it's also his first feature set outside his adopted country, taking place instead in Taiwan, where Lee grew up. Thematically it closely follows his previous two films, completing the so-called "Father Knows Best" trilogy, which deals with generational conflict and changing social norms within Chinese families. All three films feature Taiwanese actor Sihung Lung as the family patriarch, and in this one, he plays a master chef whose skills are threatened by age and who lives with his three adult daughters. The eldest daughter is a high school teacher who has converted to Christianity. The middle daughter is an airline executive who originally wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and become a chef but was rejected because of her gender. The youngest daughter is a student with a fast-food job and a complicated love life. The family encounters all sorts of strife as they attempt to make decisions about careers and relationships. Ultimately, they all come back together around the all-important dining room table.
Written by Lee with his frequent collaborators James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, "Eat Drink Man Woman" is a masterpiece of complex but tightly connected family stories that both fit perfectly within the film's limited scope and beautifully illustrate Lee's interest in family and tradition from a variety of engaging angles. This film is also brought up in every discussion of the best movies about food, with the opening sequence of Sihung Lung preparing a feast as a standout.
Sense And Sensibility (1995)
There have been many great Jane Austen adaptations in the past three decades, and as such, you might be surprised that a man from Taiwan directed one of the very best and most influential. This is the wonder of "Sense and Sensibility." At the time, Ang Lee was surprised to get the job, too, saying in 1995, "I thought they were crazy: I was brought up in Taiwan, what do I know about 19th-century England?" It didn't take long for Lee to figure out that they picked him because Austen had the same interests in family and tradition that are the focus of Lee's "Father Knows Best" films. "Jane Austen was my destiny," as Lee put it, "I just had to overcome the cultural barrier."
Lee's impeccable direction is aided by a cast that reads like a who's who of 1990s British movie stars: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, and Tom Wilkinson, among others. Emma Thompson also wrote the screenplay, proving that her talents go far beyond acting. Thompson and Winslet make a perfect duo as sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, with their relationship forming the true backbone of the film rather than their romances with Grant and Rickman. "Sense and Sensibility" stands as one of the best Jane Austen films and one of Ang Lee's best.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
After his trilogy about modern Chinese families, Ang Lee spent the second half of the 1990s making movies with no Chinese elements at all. After a Jane Austen adaptation, a drama about white East Coast suburbanites, and a Civil War film, Lee fulfilled a childhood fantasy and embraced Chinese cinematic culture in a huge way with 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a martial arts saga set in China's mythic past, with an all-Chinese cast led by Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. Of course, it's an Ang Lee martial arts film, so while there are fantastic action scenes, including near-weightless sword fights in treetops, there are also strong themes of sublimated love, gender roles, and changing family structures in the face of tradition.
The plot revolves around the Green Destiny, a vaguely magical sword that the legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai feels he must rid himself of to retire in peace. He entrusts his close friend, the female warrior Yu Shu Lien, to deliver the sword to the estate of their wealthy benefactor. When the sword is stolen by a young woman who's struggling to free herself from the traditional expectations put on her as a woman, Mu Bai and Shu Lien try to recover the sword while also dealing with their long-ignored feelings for each other. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a great film, highly entertaining with real emotional depth and immeasurable visual flair. It led to a boom in the popularity of Chinese historical drama in the United States and cemented Ang Lee as a top-tier filmmaker.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
"Brokeback Mountain" isn't just Ang Lee's best film. It's perhaps one of the best films (and one of the best Westerns) of the 21st century. It also broke the hearts of straight America with a tragic story about the gay love between two men who can never quite let themselves be together. In so doing, it provided a major step in mainstreaming queer stories. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two American cowboys who begin a sexual affair while working together on a remote Wyoming mountaintop. After the seasonal job ends, they attempt to resume their straight lives, with Ennis marrying Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack marrying Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Yet, Ennis and Jack keep coming back together for a connection stronger than either of them can find with any woman.
"Brokeback Mountain" was one of the most popular and acclaimed films of 2005. It received eight Academy Award nominations, and although it won three, including best director for Ang Lee, audiences were outraged when it lost best picture to "Crash," leading to a big public discussion about homophobia at the Academy Awards. All these years later, things have come a long way, and you'd be hard-pressed to find many lists of great films topped by "Crash," whereas "Brokeback Mountain" has stood the test of time.
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