Father Knows Best: The Early Comedies of Ang Lee

In anticipation of the release of Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, Nick Dawson looks back on the director's first ventures into comedy with the "Father Knows Best" trilogy.

Taking Woodstock, the latest film from Ang Lee, a director whose career has been defined by unpredictable moves, represents something of a homecoming. Ang began his movie career with Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—all of which were co-written with his producing partner, James Schamus—three films which mined familial tensions for comic effect, and resonate strongly with his newest work. Indeed, despite the differences in geographical setting and time period, the gentle, family-centric comedy of Taking Woodstock feels very much like a companion piece to these films.

The retrospectively titled “Father Knows Best” trilogy marked the end of a period of creative frustration for Ang, who had graduated from NYU Film School in 1985 but then for years experienced difficulties setting up his first feature. His broken English and awkward delivery made it difficult for him to connect with potential financiers. James Schamus would later joke, “The guy couldn’t pitch his way out of a paper bag,” But he desperately wanted to direct. When he first walked in the offices of NYC production company Good Machine’s offices, he said, “Hi. I’m Ang Lee, and if I don’t make movies I’m going to die.”

However teaming up with Schamus and Ted Hope got him back on track as they helped him set up production on Pushing Hands, the story of a Chinese tai chi master who moves to Westchester to live with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, with money from a Taiwanese production company. Ang had written Pushing Hands with the specific hope of winning a script competition organized by Taiwan’s Government Information Office (GIO). The script did win, ironically beating out another, older script by Ang, The Wedding Banquet..

Though tailored to the imagined tastes of the GIO judges, the film’s exploration of being an outsider, the connection between family and duty, and strained father-son relationships was very personal to Ang. Having come to America in the 1970s as a drama student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he knew all about the problems of adapting to a completely different culture, a different world. Furthermore, the reason he came to the States in the first place was as a result of a rift that had developed between him and his father: after Ang failed Taiwan’s national college entrance exam, his relationship with his headmaster father broke down.

“I had a lot of guilt that I didn’t follow his path,” Ang explained to interviewer Michael Berry. “Instead I became the funny guy who wanted to make movies. And somehow that has become my creative force, and the irony of how I see the world.” According to Ang, “My first movie, Pushing Hands, is very simple. The father and son cannot live together.” The father and son here are Master Chu (played bySihung Lung, the father figure in all the trilogy’s films) and his son Alex who lives with his high-strung wife Martha and their six-year-old son Jeremy. Pushing Hands uses gentle humor to draw out the absurdities and ironies of this awkward living situation. The title, however, refers to a slapstick sequence in the film where Master Chu uses an advanced Chinese martial arts technique to propel a portly Chinese expat across a large room and into a table laden with food.

Pushing Hands is Ang’s first exploration of the clash between Western and Eastern cultures, and the film’s understated approach to drama as well as comedy tended much more toward the latter. “I think the East’s way of handling life is very different,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t emphasize conflict, or the cry of injustice, or the cynical laugh. It’s very anti-drama. It’s about harmony in relationships, dissolving conflict to make things peaceful. I’ve become this weird mixture of drama and anti-drama, and that’s become my style.”

Though Pushing Hands would not be released in the U.S. for a few years, it was a big success in Ang’s native Taiwan, which guaranteed that he would be able to make his next movie quickly. That follow-up project, The Wedding Banquet, was essentially from a much more American perspective, as its central character, Wai-Tung (Winston Chao), a naturalized Taiwanese young man living in New York, sees his parents’ culture and values as foreign to his own. The plot is pure farce: Wai-Tung has the perfect life with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), however he has never had the courage to tell his parents he’s gay. So, to preserve his bliss, he decides to have a sham marriage to a Chinese girl in need a green card, a plan that goes well until his parents decide to turn up for the wedding.

For James Schamus, Ang’s co-writer on the script, the film very much harked back to the classic Hollywood screwball tradition. “In these great screwball comedies from Hawks, “ he says, “they’re always about couples who have divorced or split up, and then come back together. I looked at the structure of Wedding Banquet, and we realized that this was a comedy of remarriage. …It was a classic screwball comedy; it just happened to be gay and Chinese.” Despite its farcical aspects (such as the banquet set piece) and the way it exploits the comedy of culture shock, The Wedding Banquet becomes increasingly dramatic and pensive in its latter segments as, like Pushing Hands, it examines ideas of family, duty and father-son relationships as Wai-Tung’s deceit unravels and his parents learn the reality of the situation. Ang joked that his filmmaking style was “Yasujiro Ozu meets Billy Wilder,” yet that description of his mixture of underplayed Asian family drama and smart, silly humor was certainly apt.

In his review of The Wedding Banquet, Roger Ebert wrote, “There are moments of obvious comedy …But there are more moments when the film deals simply and directly with the feelings and fears of its characters. What makes the film work is the underlying validity of the story, the way the filmmakers don't simply go for melodrama and laughs, but pay these characters their due.” Time Out’s Geoff Andrew echoed these sentiments: “Never patronising his characters, Ang Lee combines comedy, both subtle and raucous, with acute social asides. There's genuine pain and confusion amid the jokes, so that the bitter-sweet, tentatively positive coda packs real punch.”

While Pushing Hands had succeeded with the Taiwanese audience it had been aimed at, The Wedding Banquet seemed to have a truly universal appeal. It won a Golden Bear, the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and on its U.S. release grossed 30 times its $750,000 budget, making it the most profitable film of 1993. During awards season, it also shone, winning nominations for Best Foreign Language Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

The Wedding Banquet had made Ang Lee a major figure in American independent filmmaking and a new star of international cinema; the logical next step would have been for him to capitalize on his traction in the business by taking his formula for success to Hollywood. But what he actually did was to go home.

Eat Drink Man Woman saw Ang return to Taiwan to tell the story of a widower ex-chef, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung, once again), with three single daughters. The film is a celebration of food and love (both familial and romantic). A movie about finding balance in life, it mixes gentle comedy with moments of romantic drama, is as pensive as Pushing Hands but has the ebullience of The Wedding Banquet. It embraces almost a fairy tale or fable-like format: Mr. Chu has three very different daughters, all of whom find their matches in the end, and he must get past the attentions of a scheming, overbearing woman in order to find his own romantic happiness. In this accessible and familiar format, Ang once again explored his pet themes of fatherhood, family, and duty, just as he had in his previous films.

Though he had not intended to create a thematic trilogy, Ang was not unaware of the guiding influence that had lead him to do so: “I was raised under that patriarchal shadow, which exerted a lot of influence. I didn’t know what I wanted from life, but I knew I had to please my father. …All through my work, I always tend to think that making films was a way of getting away from my past, but you always have to come back to your roots. You try to get as far away as you can, but somehow you always come back.”

Eat Drink Man Woman was a major critical success––Janet Maslin’s opinion that it was “delectable” and a “treat” was representative of the numerous food metaphors that reviewers used to enthusiastically praise the film––and it became the most successful Chinese language film ever to be released in the United States. At the end of 1994, it was—like The Wedding Banquet—nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.  Writing about Pushing Hands, Maslin noted that the film Ang had planned after his trilogy was a natural choice for him: “It will be no great leap for Mr. Lee when he moves on to direct a version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, since gentle comedy of manners is so clearly his forte.” Sense and Sensibility did indeed successfully tap into Lee’s sense for quiet humor – not the easy laugh, but a soft, subtle comic touch – and the film’s writer-star Emma Thompson said working with Ang had taught her that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Thompson’s comment seem to pinpoint the thing that distinguishes Ang Lee’s work, an ability to always bring something special, hidden to a movie, to surprise us with an emotion we didn’t know we were going to have. He is a director who has created a vastly varying array of films––an intimate family drama (The Ice Storm), a rousing Civil War epic (Ride with the Devil), a mystical martial arts extravaganza (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a comic book blockbuster (Hulk), a gay literary Western (Brokeback Mountain), a romantic espionage thriller (Lust, Caution), and now another family comedy, Taking Woodstock. However, regardless of the genre, he is a director who excels at bringing out aspects of a film that resonate with the viewer, tapping into a profound universality. Ultimately, he says, “I feel most at home exploring human relationships. Each time I think I am drifting away from that, I always somehow seem to come back. What people truly feel is my anchor, and that is what always gets the audience. I have tried to get away from that, but I can’t—that’s my vibe.”