Good morning, Film Doctor Friends. A week ago, “Life of Pi” became one of the stars at the 85th Academy Awards ceremony. So the Film Doctor Team is paying dues to the fascinating life & career of its award-winning Director, Ang Lee .
What is the story of Mr. Lee? How did he do it? Ang Lee is a unique Director in many respects: he is not born/raised in the USA or Western Europe (although, he has held an American citizenship since the 1980s); he is the only person of Asian descent to win an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for Best Director; he has won the ‘Directing’ Oscar twice, with Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012); and the only director to win two Golden Bears at the Berlin International Film Festival, etc. You might find that you can relate to him, personally or professionally, which is why this is a Monday Prescription.
The Film School Graduate
Unlike our previous “case study”, Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee ‘brewed’ his talents with a formal education in drama arts & film production.
Born into a family of ‘school principal’, Ang and his family were in awe of education & tradition. However, when he failed the annual Joint College/University Entrance Examination – the only route to a university education in Taiwan – twice, Ang enrolled at the National Arts College (now reorganised and expanded as National Taiwan University of Arts). And, to his father’s disappointment, became infatuated with drama art.
After graduating from the National Taiwan College of Arts, Ang came to the States to receive a B.F.A. Degree in Theatre/Theater Direction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Masters Degree in Film Production at New York University. At NYU, he served as an Assistant Director on Spike Lee‘s student film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).
Ang’s graduation thesis for NYU, a 43-minute drama called “Fine Line”, attracted the attention of the famous William Morris Agency, who found a few writing opportunities for the then-emerging talent.
Late Blooming & Domestic Success
The first 6 years after graduating from New York University proved to be rather fruitless – Ang remained largely unemployed, relying on his wife’s support. Then, at the age of 36, a chance submission to a Taiwanese state screenplay competition, brought Ang’s first feature-length project to life – “Pushing Hands”, a dramatic-comedy reflecting on generational conflicts and cultural adaptation. Winning the screenplay competition, it attracted the attention of Li-Kong Hsu, then recently promoted exec for a leading Taiwanese prod co, who invited Ang to direct the project.
Ang’s debut received eight nominations in the Golden Horse Film Festival, Taiwan’s premier film festival.
Explore What You Know
Making stories from a personal experience or on a subject that is close to you is often best – the better you know the subject matter, the more material you’ve got to work with, and the more engaging your story will turn out. Lee’s first directorial success was a ‘thrillogy’ of Taiwanese-Culture/Generation films – starting with “Pushing Hands” (1991). Second one, The Wedding Banquet (1993) is an exploration of cultural and generational conflicts through a homosexual Chinese man who feigns a marriage in order to satisfy the traditional demands of his Taiwanese parents. It garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The third movie, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), received a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.
Furthermore, Ang has consistently crafted & pursued his own cinematic style, which is what also makes his work stand out from the rest.
Entering the ‘Big Game’
Ang’s examples shows that you cannot “play the big boys game”, until you’ve succeeded on a more local level. Lee’s successful Taiwanese productions – with stories based in the US (apart from “Eat Drink Man Woman”) – gained both Asian & European festival recognition and prestigious award nominations, which in turn, attracted attention from Hollywood.
The People Around You
This has been mentioned time and time again, but film work is team work. A project’s success is largely dependent on successful partnerships.
Ang Lee’s first producer, Hsu, remained his long-lasting collaborator – and among other things, helped bring “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to life, the winner of Foreign Film Oscar, BAFTA & Golden Globe in 2000.