Ang Lee is one of the most innovative, but also perhaps most underappreciated, filmmakers of modern movie history. The director, who started his filmmaking journey in Taiwan and later on moved to the United States, has led at least 15 feature films, most of which have received critical acclaim for their directorial and story making style. Senses of Cinema described Ang Lee’s filmmaking vision as follows: “Lee is known mostly for his chameleon-like diversity whereby each film is an entirely different genre and subject from the previous one. However, every choice he makes further refines his singular exploration of the relationship between society and the individual, or outsider. When viewed in sequence, his work is remarkably consistent, just as are the films of Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder or the other great auteurs of the past. Despite such diverse subject matter, Lee always manages to find common themes in whatever material he chooses. He defines better than any other director the concept of globalization in cinema.” Every aspiring movie buff should be familiar with Ang Lee’s body of work. If you are new to the Taiwanese moviemaker’s repertoire, here are five movie recommendations to start with.
Eat Drink Man Woman
Eat Drink Man Woman is Ang Lee’s third film, which premiered 28 years ago in 1994. To date, Eat Drink Man Woman is the only film by Ang Lee to be entirely shot within Taiwan. IMDb describes the synopsis of the film as follows: “A senior chef lives with his three grown daughters; the middle one finds her future plans affected by unexpected events and the life changes of the other household members.” Eat Drink Man Woman starred prominent Taiwanese actors Sihung Lung, Kuei-Mei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-wen Wang, Winston Chao, Ah-leh Gua, and veteran actress Sylvia Chang, who had, throughout her career, served as a jury member in various international film festivals. Eat Drink Man Woman is perhaps the movie that brought Ang Lee to international prominence. The New York Times, writing a review for the film, praised the movie’s warmth: “Wonderfully seductive, and nicely knowing about all of its characters’ appetites, “Eat Drink Man Woman” makes for an uncomplicatedly pleasant experience. Its thoughts about its characters don’t go much deeper than the bottom of a soup bowl, but those thoughts are still expressed with affection, wit and an abundance of fascinating cooking tips.”
Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility is Ang Lee’s first movie set in the West. The period drama, based on Jane Austen’s 1811 novel of the same name, starred Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Imogen Stubbs, Hugh Grant, Greg Wise, Gemma Jones, and many others. Ang Lee was tapped to direct the film due to his previous work in Taiwan, where he was able to create movies with interesting family dynamics. Ang Lee admitted not being familiar with Jane Austen’s work, but he decided to take on the project and learn along the way. Roger Ebert wrote about the controversial choice to have Ang Lee direct the movie, saying: “Sense and Sensibility” has been directed by Ang Lee (“The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman”), who is from Taiwan, and whose choice for this assignment has been questioned. Yet surely a modern upper-middle-class Chinese person has more familiarity with Austen’s varieties of family ties and marriage responsibilities than a modern Briton. Romance is only one of the reasons for marriage in Taiwan, where family alliances and social class still play a role, while in modern Britain, as in America, young lovers hardly seem to recall their own earlier years, let alone their family traditions, if any.” Sense and Sensibility raked in awards, with most critics heaping praise on the film and on Ang Lee’s direction. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards criteria, including Best Picture and Best Actress. Emma Thompson, who both starred and developed the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, won Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, being the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to win both awards in the same event.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee returns to helming a primarily Asian cast, six years after Eat Drink Man Woman. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen. The movie is an example of a wuxia film, which are cinematic works depicting martial arts heroes of Ancient China. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a groundbreaking movie during its premiere, making history at the Academy Awards as the most nominated non-English language film. Its record was broken just recently by Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron, who tied with the movie. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 73rd Academy Awards, alongside multiple nominations, including Best Picture. The movie received universal acclaim during its premiere year, with The Guardian saying that the movie is an instant classic: “In the old-fashioned entertainment that it delivers, and in its inspired combination of seriousness and playfulness, Crouching Tiger is already assuming the lineaments of a classic. And if this film proves to be the father to a series of similar works, then it could almost be that a new popular genre of film-making has been born, or reborn: a new Asian western for the 21st century.”
Five years after Ang Lee was heavily celebrated at the 72nd Academy Awards for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he would enjoy a much bigger reception with Brokeback Mountain, which was the movie of the year in 2005, raking in multiple awards not just from the Oscars but from other award-giving bodies. Brokeback Mountain stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Linda Cardellini, Anna Faris, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams and Randy Quaid. The movie depicts the story of two rodeo cowboys who unintentionally fall in love, all the while committed to their respective partners. A review of Brokeback Mountain by Roger Ebert took note of the strange and unintentional reliability of the movie, despite its highly specific plot: “Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.” Brokeback Mountain was the darling of the 78th Academy Awards. It received eight nominations, winning three of them. Ang Lee won Best Director at the Oscars that year, defeating Hollywood veterans George Clooney and Steven Spielberg as well as Paul Haggis and Bennet Miller.
Life of Pi
Last on the list is Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s 2012 movie. The movie stars a mostly Indian cast, including newcomer Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, and Tabu. The movie also features English actor Rafe Spell as well as French actor Gerard Depardieu. Life of Pi is one of Ang Lee’s most commercially successful movies, raking in $609 million in box office sales worldwide. Life of Pi also earned Ang Lee his second Best Director nod at the Academy Awards, his third all in all. Times of India’s review of the film wrote: “LOP‘s soothing background score and gorgeous imagery transports you to a world of beauty, where the sky looks as sublime as the sea and the stars shine as brightly as the ripple of a stone thrown in the water. The film is ‘visually enchanting’ in every sense of the word. India’s Puducherry and Munnar have been beautifully captured on camera.