Ang Lee is a rare creature in the world of cinema. No matter the genre – period drama, arthouse, big-budget blockbuster – he brings a far-eastern sensibility to his work that is without compare. “I’m Hollywood in Asia and Asia in Hollywood,” he tells TARA BRADY
THERE’S SOMETHING alchemical about Ang Lee. The director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – the biggest grossing foreignlanguage title of all time – has converted countless nominally arthouse titles – Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility – into global box-office gold.
Is he a tentpole chap with an arthouse sensibility or vice versa? The Hollywood director of Hulk and the Chinese auteur behind Lust, Caution can’t say for sure. But he suspects that timing is just as important as the geography.
“You have to give credit to arthouse as a phenomenon because starting in the late 1980s, that arthouse expansion made a lot of international titles,” says the Oscar winner. “I just happened to catch that wave with my second film, The Wedding Banquet. So I ended up in a peculiar place because it was a mainstream film in Taiwan but not elsewhere. I’m arthouse here and mainstream there. I’m Hollywood in Asia and Asia in Hollywood, so I’m somewhere between all of it.”
It certainly didn’t hurt that Lee emerged as a global presence just as the dominant language and iconography of pop culture shifted eastwards.
“Globalisation has changed,” nods the film-maker. “The culture exchange is not so one-way any more. Especially since the rise of Asia and particularly China economically and culturally. The language of culture and cinema has changed.”
Today Lee is in London to chat about his latest, characteristically international venture. Life of Pi is adapted from the French Canadian author Yann Martel’s Booker-Prize winning novel and explores the odd spiritual life of a shipwrecked Indian boy. A fantasy adventure defined by carnivorous islands, luminous flying fish and an adolescent stuck on a raft with a Bengal tiger, the book was thought to be unfilmable until Lee turned it into a $200 million (€152m and counting) hit.
“When I read it first, I put it aside,” admits Lee. “I introduced my wife and my son to it. And we talked about it for a couple of weeks. I didn’t think it was impossible. For me, there’s no such thing as an unfilmable novel. It’s not movie-friendly though.
“The situation was interesting. But in the book it drags on forever. It’s an endurance. I don’t think you can torture your audience in that way. It would be arthouse at best.”
In addition to the structural challenges, would-be adapters faced any number of logistical and technological difficulties. Post-Avatar 3D could, Lee realised, allow his digitised tiger to come to life. But 20th Century Fox weren’t so keen at first. This was a prestige picture, not a genre piece.
“Four years ago, it simply wouldn’t have been possible to make this,” notes Lee, who shot Life of PI with stereoscopic cameras, rather than cynically adding 3D effects in post-production. “It would have been a very different movie. I fought to do it in 3D because this is not an action movie. But I just didn’t think the movie would be possible otherwise. It was very hard for me to put together evidence why I should. Because I was trying to figure out why myself. I think Avatar legitimised it as a tool for storytelling instead of just an effect and Hugo and this film have taken that further.”
Life of Pi’s extravagant narrative begins in sundrenched French India. It’s titular hero – named for a swimming pool, then later the mathematical symbol – lives with his parents and younger sister in an exotic zoological enclosure. The teenager has embraced the various tenets of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity when the family decide to relocate from Pondicherry to Canada. En route, the freighter carrying the clan and their many animals sinks, leaving Pi (Suraj Sharma) to drift on a lifeboat for more than 200 days with only a tiger for company.
In contrast to certain high-profile New Zealand productions, there was never any possibility that Lee would work with an actual cat. In the end, the director had trouble convincing international animal welfare groups that his very convincing and studiously non-anthropomorphised tiger was composed entirely from pixels from the effects house Rhythm Hues.
“The studio didn’t want that and neither did we,” says the Taiwanese-American. “It’s too much responsibility to travel a tiger and use a tiger. We watched tigers. We needed to learn from them – we have to learn how to animate them. How their muscles move. How they catch light. How hair moves. Every detail. We shoot numerous references. Normally an animation team are not allowed to do that. But we were determined that would happen.”
The animals, of course, were the easy part. They, at least, had real-life corollaries and special-effects precedents. Water, as James Cameron and most everyone at Pixar might tell you, presented a far more daunting challenge. The scene depicting the sinking freighter alone took months of shooting and longer again in post-production.
“It’s the first time anyone has used 3D to make a ship move around like that in water,” says Lee. “The transparency and the refraction are so difficult to get right. How do you shoot without fog? First day shooting that scene was day two and the last day was day 78. It took almost a year in post- production to finish that sequence.”
Lee, of course, has never knowingly shied away from a challenge. At 58, with 12 features in the can, the director has embraced an extraordinary array of styles and genres. “It would be no fun otherwise,” he grins.
Born in rural Taiwan to “waisheng ren” parents – refugees from the Communist revolution in mainland China – the young Lee’s classical Chinese education left little room for cinema.
“I have no idea where my interest in film comes from,” he says. “I’ve tracked my family tree on both sides and there’s nobody that comes close. I know my grandfather from my mother’s side had artistic inclinations; he liked to take photographs and played Urhu, the Chinese violin.”
Lee was enrolled as a drama student at the National Taiwan University of Arts when a chance viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring inspired him to relocate to the United States and, ultimately, the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, where he worked and studied with Spike Lee.
His wife, the microbiologist Jane Lin, became the main family breadwinner for six years after Lee’s graduation. It was 1990 before the budding film-maker found financial backing for his screenplays after the Taiwanese government information office picked up Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. The projects placed first and second respectively in a state-sponsored competition.
“My parents kept hoping I would teach theatre or cinema in college,” recalls Lee. “It’s not so useful in their minds but its acceptable. Even after Sense and Sensibility, my father would say, ‘Maybe you can get an Oscar before you’re 50 and you can then think about doing something for real’.
“That was my dad. Finally, I convinced him that I have some achievements in film-making. But it took time.”
Unsurprisingly inter-generational tensions frame Lee’s early Father Knows Best trilogy – Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman – a sequence of Chinese themed social comedies. His subsequent work is much harder to pin down. On what other CV does Jane Austen brush up against the losing side of the American Civil War (Ride With The Devil) and the Touch of Zen inspired martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
“Each one is different,” he nods. “Crouching Tiger was a pinnacle of guerrilla film-making. If I had had the ways and means to make it even better with a computer, I would have. But that wasn’t the deal. It was a specific design of genre that people do take off and fly when they feel like it. Like with a musical when they open their mouths and sing.”
He flinches when he talks about the underrated, underperforming Hulk but admits the comic book-adaptation was useful training when it came to making Life of Pi.
“I had some experience with computers from Hulk,” he says. “That was good because I don’t use a computer ever. In real life, I’m like a Flintstone. But I think the fact I don’t know much about computers is a good thing. As a film-maker, I’m seasoned enough to know what is doable and what isn’t doable.
“But with computers I never know the limitations. I think everything’s possible.”
Life of Pi opens today