Ang Lee is ethnically Chinese, culturally a hybrid of Taiwan and the U.S., but particularly rooted in neither place. He grew up under the heavy influences of education (his father was the principal the high school he attended) and an agriculturally-based economy, complimented by parental encouragement to read Chinese classic literature and practice calligraphy. All early signs pointed to a future in academia, but Lee found himself instead drawn to the arts. He attended what is now the National Taiwan University of Arts and, after mandatory military service for the Republic of China, completed his thesis film at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts (also having served as Spike Lee's Assistant Director on Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads). These experiences enriched Lee and produced a sort of global wanderer and citizen, and reinforced his need to create films. "I don't know where I am, but I never know where I am. I was born in China, then my parents moved to Taiwan, where we were outsiders, then to the States, then back to China, then back here. I trust the elusive world created by movies more than anything else. I live on the other side of the screen."
This mentality has allowed Lee to approach filmmaking in a way that few directors can. It has been said that he creates quintessentially American stories, and he attributes that ability to seeing traditional material with fresh eyes where others might be unable to escape their culture's well-worn interpretations. "My resources come from reality, not theatrical conventions... [but] I have that problem when I do Chinese films. People say I twist genres; sometimes I feel I just untwist it, set it straight. But that's just the way I see it."
Lee's first two post-grad films were original screenplays submitted to Taiwanese competitions out of desperation. Despite early acclaim and support from the William Morris Agency as a result of his thesis film, Fine Line, Lee did not find work for six years. "When I sent those scripts, that was the lowest point of my life. We'd just had our second son, and when I went to collect them from hospital, I went to the bank to try and get some money to buy some diapers, the screen showed I've got $26 left." Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet won top prizes and garnered Lee modest funds to begin filming. During his search for a producer, Lee was approached by the founders of Good Machine (the company that would later be merged with USA Films to create Focus Features and continues to distribute for Lee) through whom he began his longstanding and fruitful partnership with James Schamus. Schamus has written or co-written all but three of Lee's films, a collaboration for which Lee is relieved: "I don't care about writing really. When I started out, nobody gave me scripts, so I had to write. . . That's why I wrote family drama - I'm a domestic person, it's all I know! Now I'm kind of established as a director, I much prefer directing to writing. Writing's lonely. Directing, I get all kinds of inspiration."
The Wedding Banquet (perhaps unintentionally) set something of a career trajectory for Lee. Despite becoming a household name for the stir he created with Brokeback Mountain's subject matter, it was this 1993 comedy about a gay New York couple that introduced his recurring theme of sexually charged identity crises. Eat Drink Man Woman (the film that inspired the Mexican-American remake Tortilla Soup for which Lee wrote the screenplay), Sense & Sensibility, and Lust, Caution all feature characters struggling to find themselves amidst cultural repression and sexual exploration. Beyond admitting his own sexual repression, Lee find himself uniquely suited to empathize with these "lost" characters. "I do have identity problems -- what is the deepest cultural root for me? All my life I've been a foreigner." Lee was also nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for The Wedding Banquet, a trend that has persisted well into his career -- his films have won a total of eight Oscars, twelve BAFTA's, and eight Golden Globes to date.
In the midst of critical acclaim, Lee continually challenges himself to grow as a storyteller. Having read and loved the Crane Precious Sword Crouching Iron Pentalogy (a series of five books often abbreviated as the "Crane-Iron Pentalogy"), Lee detected a filmable story in the fourth book, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He optioned the novel in 1998 but never felt skilled or qualified enough as a director to tackle the ambitious subject matter. He continued to work for the next few years, directing in succession Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Ride with the Devil, films that gave him experience with larger scope and action. "Going back after three major league productions, English-language films including one somewhat action film, I thought I was ready. I was, you know, tougher."
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a Chinese proverb meaning "talented or dangerous people hidden from view") follows Jen, a young woman who fakes her own death and vanishes into the desert with a horse and a legendary sword, the Green Destiny. Lee embraced the mythology of the sword, interpreting it as a feminine representation. He also wanted to create a romantic drama that wasn't "just a martial arts film" while using the fight sequences to act as "expressions of relationships." The film also subverted traditional Chinese expectations: "Usually with this genre the first thing that happens is a good fight sequence to show that you're in good hands. So we broke that rule. I think a lot of that comes from the western audience." Just like Lee himself, the film is neither western nor Chinese, yet succeeds in appealing to both.
2003's Hulk was Lee's first foray into mainstream Hollywood. He devoted three exhausting years to the film, choosing to approach the story with an emphasis on the strain of Banner's father-son dynamic. Though it underperformed at the box office, it was the first film that caused his father to approve of Lee's chosen profession. "He told me to just put on my helmet and keep on going." This sanction from his father inspired Lee to pare down his style and focus. He returned to the intimate storytelling of his early films and subsequently yielded the controversial 2005 masterpiece Brokeback Mountain.
After completing Lust, Caution, Lee spent four grueling years adapting and shooting the "unfilmable" Life of Pi. Based on Yann Martel's prizewinning novel of the same name, the story follows the lifelong spiritual journey and 227-day-at-sea ordeal of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel. After growing up the son of a zookeeper in French-colonized Pondicherry, India (and named after a Parisian swimming pool), Pi, his family, and the animals begin a trans-pacific journey to Canada. Their Japanese freighter is sunk during a storm and Pi is stranded at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, during which time he and the tiger must learn to co-exist and survive.
Lee was challenged by nearly every aspect of the film: technical difficulties and shooting in 3D, the scope and location of the set pieces, the psychological and internal nature of the narrative, the need for a realistic CGI tiger, and finding the right actor to play Pi -- ultimately an inexperienced, 17-year-old Indian boy named Suraj Sharma -- all took their toll. Lee became a spiritual mentor to Sharma and the entire experience was very intense for cast and crew alike. Reports USA Today, "One of the crowning moments is the sinking of the cargo ship that starts Pi's journey. All told, the storm-filled scene took nearly 77 days to shoot." Upon completion of the massive production, Lee remarked, "I started to feel this aching in my bones. I didn't feel like celebrating, but I should have. Give everyone a big hug and smile. But nothing." The film is a technical marvel, the new benchmark for 3D filmmaking. But it also contains many of Lee's tried-and-true themes (self-acceptance, actualization, global awareness) while introducing a new one: spiritual discovery. Life of Pi is expected to garner a Best Picture nomination at the 2013 Academy Awards.
And Lee will be on to to the next adventure: "I'm not really good at time off. I'm a fortunate filmmaker. People send me stuff. Whatever gets me hooked, makes me feel like doing a movie, I just go do it. That will be the next one or two years of my life. Or, if it's like this case, it will be my next four years."