Jonathan NOBLE

Best known in the West for films like Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), Ang Lee has directed films in both Chinese and English whose popularity and themes have transcended international boundaries. Both Lee and his films have won Academy Awards and gained critical acclaim for their treatment of sensitive subjects.

Born 23 October 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan, Ang Lee is the first Asian director to be awarded an Academy Award for best director. His films have increased the international audience for Chinese-language films, while the critical success of his English-language films demonstrates his mastery of the universal art of film. Many of his films explore the encounter between different cultures and between tradition and modernity, while the tragic impossibility of true love is also a common theme.

Lee’s parents moved to Taiwan from mainland China at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. After completing a college degree in Taiwan and serving in the army, Lee came to the United States in 1979 and received a master’s degree in fine arts from New York University. He worked with classmate Spike Lee, and his thesis film project Fine Line (1984) won a prestigious award at NYU.

Lee’s first two films, Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993), both filmed in the United States, were based on stories of Taiwanese Americans; they both focused on the themes of cultural and generational differences. Pushing Hands tells the story of a martial arts teacher who emigrates from Taiwan to live with his son in New York, but then moves out due to differing ideas about family and life. The Wedding Banquet is a comedic family melodrama about a gay Taiwanese immigrant to the United States who plans to hide his true identity from his parents by marrying a woman.

Lee returned to Taiwan to make the comedic but socially discerning film Eat Drink Man Woman (1995) about the strained relationships between a widowed father and his three unmarried daughters in Taipei. After gaining international acclaim, Hollywood recruited Lee to make Sense and Sensibility (1995), which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and then The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which merged the Chinese martial arts genre with a Western-style romance, became the highest grossing foreign film in many countries and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. The film encouraged other leading film directors in China, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, to market Chinese martial-art fantasies as blockbusters for global consumption.

Lee’s disappointment with his first big-budget Hollywood film, Hulk (2003), was followed by one of his greatest and most controversial cinematic accomplishments to date, Brokeback Mountain (2005). The film reinvented the traditional American film genre of the Western as a compassionate tale about the homosexual relationship between two Wyoming cowboys. It won countless awards around the globe and earned Lee an Oscar for Best Director.

From Lust, Caution

An excerpt from Eileen Chang’s 2007 novel which was adapted for the movie screen by director Ang Lee. In this scene, Chia-chih waits in a café to meet with Mr. Yee.

It had been his idea in the first place, after their first assignation. “Let’s buy you a ring to celebrate—you choose it. I’d go with you myself, if I had the time.” Their second meeting was an even more rushed affair, and he had not mentioned it again. If he failed to remember today, she would have to think of artful ways of reminding him. With any other man, she would have made herself look undignified, grasping. But a cynical old fox like him would not delude himself that a pretty young woman would attach herself to a squat fifty-year old merely for the beauty of his soul; a failure to express her material interest in the affair would seem suspicious. Ladies, in any case, are always partial to jewelry. She had, supposedly, traveled to Shanghai to trade in feminine luxuries. That she should try to generate a little extra profit along the way was entirely to be expected. As he was in the espionage business himself, he probably suspected conspiracies even where they didn’t exist, where no cause for doubt had been given. Her priority was to win his trust, to appear credible. So far they had met in locations of his choosing; today she had to persuade him to follow her lead.

Source: Chang, E.. (2007). Lust, caution. New York: Anchor Books, 17–18

Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), based on a short story by celebrated Chinese author Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), is set in Shanghai in the 1940s during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film tells the story of a university student who enters into a relationship with the man she is to seduce in order to facilitate his assassination for collaborating with the Japanese occupiers. Although scenes considered overly erotic or political were edited out, the Chinese government permitted the theatrical release of the film. The uncut version circulated as pirated DVDs and was readily downloadable on the Internet in China. Some mainland Chinese even traveled to Hong Kong to view the uncut version. The difference in these versions generated a debate about the right of mainland Chinese to view “uncensored” films, and ultimately lead actress Tang Wei was reprimanded by the Chinese government for her participation in the film’s erotic scenes.

Ang Lee’s career demonstrates that an ethnic Chinese can break into Hollywood, leaving his mark on the industry to become one of the most celebrated directors throughout the world. His deep understanding of both the Chinese way of life and Western traditions lends a unique aspect to his filmmaking.

Further Reading

Chang, Eileen, Wang Hui Ling, & Schamus, J. (2007). Lust, Caution: The story, the screenplay, and the making of the film. New York: Pantheon Books.

Cheshire, E. (2001). Ang Lee. Chicago: Trafalger Square Publishing.

Dilley, W. C. (2007). The cinema of Ang Lee: The other side of the screen. London: Wallflower Press.

Zhang, Ziyi. (2006, April 30). Ang Lee. Time. Retrieved on December 12, 2008, from,9171,1187225,00.html

Source: Noble, Jonathan (2009). LEE Ang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1287–1288. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

LEE Ang (L?’?n ??)|L?’?n ?? (LEE Ang)

Download the PDF of this article