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Ang Lee: possessed by film

The BAFTA and Oscar-winning director looked back at his career at Sunday’s BAFTA A Life in Pictures event.

Ang Lee’s latest directorial effort, the 3D adaptation Life of Pi, comes exactly two decades after his debut feature Pushing Hands (1992). As part of BAFTA’s A Life in Pictures series, Ang Lee reflected on his body of work and provided an insight into influences and motivations that have driven him over the years.

Growing up in conservative Taiwan, Lee went against his high-school principle father’s wishes by pursuing a career in film. Lee recalled telling his father, “I think I belong to this. I didn’t choose it; it feels like it chose me.”

After graduating from New York University, a six-year period of “development hell” followed, but eventually a Taiwanese competition that won him not just the first prize for his script Pushing Hands but also the second prize for The Wedding Banquet, kick-started his directorial career.

Both screenplays were subsequently turned into films and The Wedding Banquet (1993) marked Lee’s first English-language film, shot in the US. The low-budget ($750,000) comedy-drama was a critical and commercial success notably trumping Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park as the most profitable film in 1993 (comparing investment versus return).

He subsequently directed Sense and Sensibility (1995) to international acclaim, followed by The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999), which were critically praised but both commercial disappointments.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) would be a watershed in his career, his dream project, combining his two favourite genres, Chinese opera and martial arts, which earned him both an Oscar and a BAFTA and worked its magic on global audiences. Yet, he was convinced it would be his third flop (and as Lee explains every director is only allowed to have three flops before their career is essentially finished) as he chose to combine a traditional B-movie genre (martial arts) with A-grade production.

A career pinnacle followed with 2007’s Brokeback Mountain, a film which largely owes its existence to Lee’s father who made his son reconsider retirement. Sadly, Lee’s father would never witness his son’s Oscar-winning triumph, as he passed away shortly before shooting began.  

For Life of Pi (2012), his intention was to take people where they don’t know what hit them. While initially wary of 3D, dismissing it for being less solid and fantastical, he became very appreciative of it as it turned out to be a great tool to bring out the details in the film, despite being “tedious to work on”. He was ready to work with CGI again almost 10 years after the disappointment he experienced with Hulk (2003), which Lee describes was fun to make but the reception it received wasn’t. “I treated it as a psychodrama […] but the audience thought it was about anger and I really provoked a lot of anger,” he joked.

What is apparent is how incredible diverse Lee’s career has been and yet how certain themes appear to run through his work: marginalisation, alienation, repression. Many of his films’ characters are outsiders; the question arises whether this is a reflection of Lee’s own feelings? When asked what has drawn him to each project he replies, “I always wanted to find something I believe in. I want to make films that move me, catch my curiosity, something worthy of me and people following me.”

And what makes Ang Lee such a unique director? “When I make a movie I feel somewhat possessed. I don’t feel like I’m directing the film, I feel like the movie is directing me.”

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