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The Elusive Genius of Ang Lee

The sky had gone uncharacteristically grey the day I was to drive to L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills to interview Ang Lee. Rain dotted the glass on my windshield. Rain in Los Angeles almost makes it feel like a real city. I was driving over the hill way over Laurel Canyon, out of the comfortable reality of “the valley” and into the strangely uncomfortable unreality of Beverly Hills — shiny black cars with tinted windows — the world you can’t see behind the windows is left to your delusions about the good life.

Interviews aren’t my favorite thing in the world but this wasn’t just any interview. This was Ang Lee. You can count on one hand the most influential directors of the last twenty years, the ones didn’t take their lead from the Big Four — Lucas, Spielberg, Allen and Scorsese — but instead forged their own unique path, inventing their own school of cinema. David Fincher is one. David Lynch is another. And then there’s Ang Lee.

His new film, Life of Pi, like many of his films, perplexes viewers, dividing them into three groups — those who are there for the revolutionary 3-D imagery, those who will be moved by its playful approach to spirituality, and those who see it as new age gobbledegook at best, or a cartoon at worst.

However it turns out, there is no denying that Ang Lee has pulled off one of the most ambitious films of his career. When I saw the film I was reeling from something personal in my life that left me in a constant state of fear about death. Even in yoga class, while I was supposed to be meditating, the inevitability of my own mortality would paralyze me in the moment. Really, all of this, only to come to the end and die? We’re really just moving in one direction? That day I just lived is gone forever? I will never be 20 years old again. I am here in middle age waiting for everything to start decaying. It was rough going for a few months there. Strangely, Life of Pi turned it around for me.

As an atheist, I have never been someone who turns to God for relief. I understand the need for it and I am envious at people who can find relief there. I have just never been one of them. When people say “I’ll pray for you” my first thought is, good luck with that. To me, if there was a higher power, he or she is an apathetic one. But there is undeniably another dimension to “this.” There is what Einstein said about religion, “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Life of Pi shows both — the radiant beauty of the natural world and our ability to see and describe that world. By the end of it, you are given a choice in how to view life. You can see its realism or you can see it as miraculous. I suspect we all do a little of both.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been greatly moved by an Ang Lee film.

I know that when I started Oscarwatch back in the 1999, the first Oscar year I followed closely was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon vs. Gladiator. We’d never seen anything like Crouching Tiger before and it ignited cinema in a brand new way. The other films up that year were so conventional by comparison. They were and remain very good films but they didn’t drop the match the way Lee’s film did.



Because it was technically a foreign film it wasn’t going to win Best Picture but I remember predicting it to win anyway, being a relative novice and thrilled at the idea that the impossible could become possible. Everyone knew Gladiator was going to win, and of course, how could it lose? But Crouching Tiger was far better than any of them. That was my first introduction to Ang Lee.

Luscious, erotic, full of suspense, surprising, without conventional story structure Crouching Tiger headed into the Oscar race with ten nominations. Ang Lee had won the Directors Guild award, while Gladiator had won the Producers Guild award. Complicating matters was that Traffic had won the SAG award.

That year, no one could believe that Steven Soderbergh, who had turned in two movies — Traffic and Erin Brockovich — wouldn’t be winning SOMETHING. The voters took it upon themselves to decide that Traffic was the movie he should win for. They circulated letters. Gladiator would win Best Picture, Traffic would win Best Director and Crouching Tiger would win Best Foreign Language Film.




It was as heartbreaking to me then that Gladiator beat Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as it would be a few years later when Hollywood and the Oscars turned their backs on Brokeback Mountain by awarding Crash Best Picture. When I look at those two films alone, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain I could say that Ang Lee was one of the masters of cinema. But when you then add in Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Lust Caution and now, Life of Pi, how can you not drop to your knees in appreciation?

It is never easy meeting someone you greatly admire, or anyway it never has been easy for me. I’ve suffered through it when asked because I know that all of this is finite and you don’t want to wake up at 70 years old and have many regrets about missed opportunities.

I found parking near the hotel, hoisted my tripod on my shoulder and my camera strapped over my shoulder like a purse and walked casually towards the entrance, pretending, as always to be a real press person. My plan was to video Mr. Lee and the star of Life of Pi, Suraj Sharma.  When I got there, I noticed the battery had either fallen out of my camera or else I’d forgotten it. The videotaping was out. I would have to improvise. I checked my iphone’s battery. That would have to do.

I knew my emotions would get the better of me upon meeting Ang Lee. Part of that was his being such an important part of my working life, starting way back in 1999. But it was also my own amazement at his willingness to expose that which is hidden, to go deeper for that reveal, to fearlessly face down what is a cynical and overly branded culture and give them something they’ve never seen before.

Inside L’Ermitage, publicists milled about, jotting down notes, flipping through press notes, monitoring their iphones and ipads. Press would come and go, each of them being called in for their conversations with Lee and Sharma. My turn was coming next. I left my camera gear in the press room and found Ang Lee waiting there with Life of Pi’s star.

The embarrassing part of the story is that yes, I did start to cry upon meeting Ang Lee. It wasn’t the first time my emotions got the better of me meeting an admired director (when asked, I could not muster the nerve to even shake Martin Scorsese’s hand; perhaps I am a flawed human being who sees them as Gods — but so be it. It is what it is). The humble and impossibly human director said, “Can I give you a hug?” And I hugged Ang Lee.

My plan of pretending to be a real press person and giving a real interview failed completely as I bonded with one of the best directors who ever picked up a camera. After a while, it sort of seemed like I’d known them both a lot longer than just one afternoon. But an emotional outburst can do that — think Emma Thompson at the end of Sense and Sensibility. It cuts through the pretend barriers.

We talked about Life of Pi, we talked about 3-D, we talked about God. “It’s supposed to be mysterious,” Lee said of what Life of Pi means.  “I think faith and our relationship to God is an emotional attachment more than something you know.  If you think you know it, then that’s not God.  The story of the boy and tiger on the ocean is a man made story.  But God is something else.”

We laughed a little. Sharma, who has movie star good looks, startling in fact when you see him in person, joked about how much fun he had eating to bulk up for the beginning of the film, and then how hard it was by the end, when he felt so sick and thin. They shot the film continuously so that it would be believable that he’d just spent all of this time adrift at sea. Sharma is majoring in philosophy in college back in India. He said that he had read the book, Life of Pi, several times, “It’s the kind of book, you read it and then you think about for thrice as long as the time you took reading it.  I don’t think I got the first time I read it.  Which is why I read it again.  And again.” So, does that mean he gets it? “I’ve realized that the thing is, sometimes it is really about not getting it.”

What I loved about Life of Pi was the playful approach to something so essential to each of our lives — its meaning. Ang Lee’s films have revealed to me over the years a full color spectrum of the human experience, from vitality to sexuality to oppression. He manifests earthly delights like no other. He never approaches his work with fear or hesitancy. Even the films the critics panned bring something unique to the human story. Some will embrace that kind of skyfall; others won’t. But Lee says, “I’ve been doing this for a long time.   Over the past 10 years, I’ve begun to have this eerie feeling that it’s not I who directs the movie but the movie directs me.”

By the end of the interview I hugged the beloved director one more time. He told me that when he’d read my review of Life of Pi he felt it approached film more the way audiences do in Taiwan, and therefore, in my former life, I must have been Taiwanese. Here in America critics and audiences can be too rigid, I think, in cornering a director to fit their definition of him or her, but perhaps that is why Ang Lee has been freed from such constraints; he is under no obligation to adjust his vision to our way of thinking. It is our job, I figure, to be open to his. It isn’t the critic’s job, nor invitation, to seek perfection. That is what artists do.

In the 13 years of Oscarwatch/AwardsDaily I can count such spectacular encounters on one hand. It isn’t just about greatness, yes it’s about that. But it’s also about having gone places Ang Lee has taken me. With Life of Pi he gave me one of the best reasons to be alive at all. Because the answers are all around you. All you have to do is look.

Happy Tears