When I got the call, in 1995, that alerted me to the possibility of a cinematic adaptation of my novel, The Ice Storm, I knew very little about the director who was expressing this interest. I'd heard about Ang Lee's film The Wedding Banquet, knew of its reputation, but I hadn't seen it, nor its predecessor, Pushing Hands. In an attempt to catch up, I went out right away and saw Eat Drink Man Woman, which was playing in the arthouses around town. For those who have not been lucky enough to see it, Eat Drink Man Woman is a wise and tender character-driven drama/comedy which gets much of its power from an obsession with food. Sort of a Taiwanese Babette's Feast. I loved it immediately. By reason of gentleness and good humor and its sympathy for its personages.
Those early "Father Knows Best" films, the Ang Lee films that have more to do with his childhood in Asia, are noteworthy for their single-minded thematic obsession–how a sense of lineage and morality is passed on by faulty patriarchs. Still, in them you don't yet see the literary instincts that emerged in Ang's next film.
The grand preliminary screening of Sense and Sensibility to which I was invited took place on a cruise liner, moored just off 42nd Street. As a superfluous attendee, I was sitting anonymously at a crowded table at the reception after the marvelous screening when I heard one excessively tanned exec say to another: "What's he doing next?" To which the first replied: "I don't know, some book no one's ever heard of." Perhaps this was a recognition of just how effectively the Taiwanese director had inhabited the British costume drama we'd just seen. Suddenly, it was obvious. Ang Lee could find the meaningful center in any story. With Sense and Sensibility, he gave notice that he was not a regional director or a director of one particular approach to narrative. I was beginning to understood how lucky I was going to be with The Ice Storm.
Still, why not ask the film executive's question in this context? Why make a film of a nearly overlooked contemporary novel? My novel? For that matter, why Ride With the Devil, or Brokeback Mountain, the other literary films that followed Sense and Sensibility? He did make a couple of action pictures, it's true, but one of these has a half-hour romantic flashback in the middle that would seem designed to challenge viewers who came only for the martial arts sequences. My sense is that Ang is more at home not only with the reasonable scale of character-driven films, but that his points of origin are landscape and history. These are not always features of the plot-heavy Hollywood film. Place (the West), is essential in Brokeback Mountain; place is essential to the Civil War setting of Ride With the Devil, and place is what makes The Ice Storm work so well–that stifling, Northeastern suburbia that so gracefully made the transition from the book to the screen.
My novel was set in New Canaan, CT, a town where I lived for a time as a child. It's a quaint, singularly old-fashioned suburb, but I never expected that Ang and the producers would elect to film in the town itself. Surely there must have been municipalities where a tale of marital infidelity and family dissolution would not so outrage the town politicos that filming would be jeopardized briefly. And yet Ang found something he loved in New Canaan. So there we were on the first day of shooting, obstacles surmounted, in the same park where I used to play in the soccer league as a kid. Across the street from my junior high school. Because of Ang's fealty to natural settings. And: he may have spent the 1970s in Taiwan, but an American story about a hapless patriarch and a family that has trouble expressing itself was no stretch for him at all.
Having interviewed the director when Brokeback Mountain was released, it's my understanding that his relationship to that story followed a similar course. He felt certain that the mountain itself, the mountain of the title, the mountain on which the two cowboy protagonists first consummated their anguished love, was an essential character in the film. In this way, he made the exoticism of the doomed love affair not exotic at all, but, rather, very human, very sympathetic. And I have no doubt that at the time of Ride With the Devil, Ang had his theories about how the Midwestern prairie was contested ground in the War Between the States.
And now we have the director's newest offering, Lust, Caution. A Mandarin-language film about the wartime period in Shanghai and Hong Kong which asks some serious questions about what collaboration with the occupier means. The film features a modicum of explicit sexuality between the two afflicted antagonists whose political positions very nearly swap as thoroughly as their sexual ones do. In reactionary times, this is enough to have earned the film and NC-17 rating.
You can imagine studio executives pulling their hair out yet again wondering why Ang can't just content himself with a conventional romantic comedy or a thriller. He may yet. But clearly he has more to say than any one approach to narrative can articulate, and for the moment what he has to say is manifestly political and full of a sober elegance. When you meet Ang, you meet a modest, understated, but very intense and ambitious person. His modesty belies the broadness of his purpose. To me, it seems his antecedents are directors of the international art film, like Ozu, Bergman, Bertolucci, Truffaut, or, maybe, at the auteur end of things: John Ford, Sam Fuller, or George Cukor. It wouldn't be a surprise if he followed Lust, Caution with a teen comedy, actually, or a musical in French. Doubtless, these projects will be just as indelible as what came before them.
Besides being indebted to Ang Lee for a very memorable adaptation of my own novel, I feel lucky to have had a seat down front in the spectacle of his career. It's been a joyful thing to watch such a protean approach to cinematic art. When much filmmaking is formulaic and driven by demographics or securities analysis, Ang Lee still tells stories like stories tell us something about being alive.