Monday, December 02, 2013

Ang Lee: The Always Curious and Scared Outsider

Prominent Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee visits the Philippines to share his insights on the art of filmmaking to Filipino audience in a tribute event for him
  In the movie Life of Pi, the main character Pi finds himself dealing with a Bengal tiger he calls Richard Parker in a small lifeboat after a shipwreck. He is always in danger of being either devoured by the sea or by the tiger. Somehow, they manage to survive, and Pi ends up grateful for the tiger. The 2001 novel by Canadian Yann Martel, on which the movie is based, reads: “A part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept me from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. I am grateful. It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story.”
The movie version emphasizes that the tiger scares Pi, and that fear keeps him alert and alive. This positive aspect of fear is one of the driving forces of its director Ang Lee to be one of the best film directors in the world today.
[Being an] outsider is scary. You don’t have a sense of belonging. Everybody around you, potential audience or critics, they’re scary. But I think scare is good. You tend to do your best when you’re scared. I think if I’m not scared I can be lazy. My biggest fear is that I keep repeating myself and I lose my freshness, and I’m not doing my best. Freshness is important. I feel like every movie that I make is like I am doing a movie for the first time. I have to somehow pull myself in that position. Yes, scare is bad. For myself, [with] the insecurity, I’m doing my best. And that makes me feel alright even if the movie flops. You still do your best. I think that’s the wonderful thing about being an outsider,” Lee said in front of reporters, filmmakers and admirers at the Imax Theater of SM Aura Premiere in Taguig City in November 28, 2013.
Fifty-nine-year-old Lee was in the Philippines for the first time upon the invitation of the Taipei Economic Cultural Office for its Film Cultural Exchange Program in cooperation with the Film Development Council of the Philippines. The event, “A Salute to Ang Lee,” consisted of a showing of Life of Pi, which won for him his second best director trophy from the Academy Awards for 2012; and an open forum, in which he discussed his being a filmmaker.
In the event, filmmakers Tikoy Aguiluz, Brillante Medoza and actress Angeli Bayani, whose film, the Singaporean Ilo Ilo, just won best picture in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, presented him with the Lino Brocka Award, the highest honor for lifetime achievement of the currently dormant Cinemanila International Film Festival. Lee is considered as the most successful Asian filmmaker today. In 2006, he became the first Asian and non-white to win an Academy Award for best director for his film Brokeback Mountain.
Thank you, movie god, for making movies big and small, each one distinguished by mastery of his craft…We just want to say thank you for your passion and vision and boundless humanity,” Aguiluz said. “Thank you, Jane Lin, for supporting an artist, a househusband for six years. Thank you, Taiwan, for recognizing a son and for giving him the highest recognition an artist could ever have. Thank you, Ang Lee, for visiting Manila and inspiring our filmmakers.”
Aguiluz as well as many in the audience were familiar with Lee’s early struggles as a filmmaker. Most likely, they have read the touching essay Lee wrote after winning his second Oscar that circulated in the Internet. The story could be one of his movies, full of tenderness and emotion.
That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support,” reads the essay, translated from the Mandarin Chinese by Irene Shih and posted in her blog. “My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework—cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son—in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother—the heroic huntress—to come home with our sustenance (income).
This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant, hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.
Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.
The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and—standing there on our front steps—said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’
And that dream of mine—drowned by demands of reality—came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.”
Lee had been against several odds in his life. In Taiwan, where he was born in the town of Chaochou in Pingtung, his father wanted Lee to become a professor like him, but Lee instead enrolled at the National Taiwan University of Arts and became interested in drama and the arts, disappointing his father. He then went to the United States to attend University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in theater in 1980, and the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University for his Masters in Fine Arts in film production. After school, he didn’t have a stable job for several years until a producer in Taiwan became interested in two of his screenplays, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, which won in a competition sponsored by Taiwan’s Government Information Office in 1990. Pushing Hands came out in 1992 and The Wedding Banquet in 1993, garnering commercial success and critical acclaim. Those started the ball rolling for Lee. The two films were followed by Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). His first American film is an adaptation of a classic Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1995. He directed two more Hollywood movies, The Ice Storm (1997) and Ride with the Devil (1999), before taking on his first wuxia film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), for which he received four Oscars, four BAFTA Awards, a Golden Globe Award for best director. He made Hulk, a big-budget, Hollywood superhero movie, in 2003. His Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s short story, became a cultural phenomenon and is the most awarded film in 2005. Life of Pi currently caps his constellation of achievements that brought him to many places including the Philippines.
I’m really looking forward to be friends with you, and we shall have more communications,” Lee said, adding that he is thinking of making a film in the country. The said project would be a three-dimension (3D) movie about boxing.
Manila was mentioned twice in Life of Pi, Lee pointed out.
This is a special movie for me. [I worked on it for] four years of my life, [and] 3,000 people worked on the movie,” he related. “Twelve years ago, I read the book. I never thought that it could be made into a movie. I never gave it a thought actually. I was just inspired by the philosophy in the book. I am a storyteller; I am filmmaker. [The book] examines the value of storytelling, the emotional connection with the unknown. It really drew me in. When I was asked to do this movie five years ago, I really tried to crack it. I thought I didn’t know to how to make this movie…but eventually I had a silly thought. I thought if I had another dimension, maybe 3D, whatever, or a different way of writing a structure, a story, maybe I can find a way to tell the story, and at the same time examine it. I can get a circular film structure and also I can get myself into 3D filmmaking, which was a totally new cinematic language for me. It was a very inspiring film experience.”
He continued: “I would like to think my whole film career is a film school. I never stop learning how a movie is made. I never stop learning about myself. I never stop learning how the world works. I’m a curious filmmaker. I never conquered anything. I am just a curious filmmaker. I hope I get to explore filmmaking further into the unknown territory.”
Lee appeared shy and child-like before the audience, which endeared him more to his admirers. He gave his thoughts on the nature of his films and making it in Hollywood.
I have very unique career. I started making mainstream movies [like] my first three movies especially The Wedding Banquet. In America, you might call it spoof or comedy, but in Taiwan it’s just a bizarre comedy of manners. So I was doing mainstream Taiwanese films, low-budget, but they made it in New York as independent filmmaking. They were released outside of Taiwan as art-house because they were in foreign language, and I happened to win many awards over the years,” he said. “I refuse to mix in Hollywood. I refuse to be called Hollywood even though I can make a very expensive movie. In some ways, I still like to think I cannot be categorized. I want to have my independence…I have done the cheapest movies; I have done the most expensive movies. I would like to have that freedom to express myself.”
He continued: “Sometimes when we talk about independent [movies], you have to be either wacky or very different in film language, austere, so you can be in film festivals, so you can get the attention of film critics. I never really do that. I just express myself, doing what I think as my best, finding my audience. Sometimes, it works out for me. Sometimes, I hit both like Brokeback Mountain.”
After making Hulk, Lee thought he wanted to retire, “but I didn’t want to retire with a big, expensive, not successful, angry movie. So I just grabbed anything.”
I thought Brokeback Mountain was a cheap movie about gay cowboys nobody wants to see, strictly art-house. I just didn’t want to be angry,” he revealed. “I told the producers if you want me to make this movie, anybody that gets on my nerves, just get them away from me. And who knows, that’s one of my biggest commercial success. With all my artistic achievements, so to speak, winning awards, I also do well commercially except The Ice Storm, which is a commercial flop, but I think it is critically acclaimed. You’ll never know. I think movie is spiritual, as long as you do your best. I don’t want to set boundaries. I don’t want to set a style. I think my most expensive movies such as [Life of Pi], such as Hulk, I think of them as art films, and smaller movies such as The Wedding Banquet or my very first movie Pushing Hands, to me they’re commercial films in terms of language. It really doesn’t matter. Making this impossible movie like this is no different when I made my student films. I just try to make it work.”
It’s tougher in American filmmaking to make independent films,” Lee said. “This movie (Life of Pi) is very inspiring to me, how it works around the world. It didn’t work so well in America, which used to be the leader of the market. The whole world stood up for themselves. Eighty-five percent of the income comes from outside North America. Even in North America, Canada is better than America. So I think that’s good news for all of us. Many movies in the established film language and business such as Hollywood…you don’t have to follow it, you have the chance to make it and find your audience. You just have to be patient and little by little find where your audiences are, and I think there are more chances in making movies.”
I think Hollywood keeps changing,” he further said. “There are filmmakers who never really adjust to the way Hollywood operates. I’m one of those persons who can manage that. It’s painful. There were times I worked in China. A couple of movies got shot there, and the Western press kept asking me, do you have freedom to do what you want? That particular question. They expected me to say no. After a while I got irritated. I would tell them, you know, the most un-free place to make a movie is America. Not politically, of course, but American film, particularly in Hollywood, it’s an establishment. It’s not only financially, it’s film language, how things operate, ideology. All those have to function certain ways. I think that bothers me. Movie after movie, I try to break away but I also have to negotiate with it.”
He addressed those who want to make it to Hollywood: “So for those of you who want to make bigger movies, of course, nobody makes bigger movies like the Americans. It’s like if you want to contribute to science, in space shuttle, you have to work in America. If you’re a great basketball player, you want to play in the NBA. It’s the major league. There’s a certain culture and way of thinking that you have to deal with. You can work against it but you cannot ignore it. For those of you interested in bigger filmmaking…mainstream movies [with] broader appeal, if you’re talented in that and you want to break into Hollywood, you have to know the operation, you have to know the film language, and you have to know how to deal with it. You don’t want to be a slave of that culture, of that establishment. You want to show something different. I cannot tell you in a few words, but what you have to be aware of [them]. You have to have good producers.”
You have to know your craft to either adapt or negotiate to make a difference. You have to know your stuff,” he added.
His being an outsider was a popular topic with Ang Lee, which he himself frequently mentions. Lee is an outsider in many ways. His family settled in Taiwan from mainland China. Then he went against his father’s wishes to be a filmmaker. He went to the United States and became a househusband for several years.
Over the years, I realized there’s nothing I can do to change that,” he related. “My family, my parents went to Taiwan. I grew up in Taiwan. We’re the outsiders; we’re not native Taiwanese. Then I went to America as a foreigner, smaller, weaker. Everybody seemed to be smarter. I didn’t speak their language so everybody looked smarter to me. They sounded smarter and they looked bigger. So it was very intimidating. Then when I went back to China, I’m Taiwanese. I’m not really rooted in any nationality or culture, except the Asian tradition or Chinese culture, which kind of drifted away from us. It’s like a dream. So I’ve been believing in fantasy and have faith something that doesn’t exist anymore so that makes me a drifter.”
For Lee, being an outsider is not a negative thing. He said: “I like being accepted as an outsider. I want to be alright being an outsider. I think hardly anybody has absolute cultural roots, race or society that you can say this is exactly [where I belong], I want to stay there. Most people are forced to do that for solidarity of society, to deal with people. Politically, it’s more powerful. But most of us are not made up that way. We’re made up with many different elements in life. And we can be all complicated and un-decisive. [We’re] outsiders, one way or the other. But I like to think that a more civilized way to deal with an outsider is to accept that. I consider myself an outsider. I gradually make peace with that. And I would like to be accepted that way. And anybody who comes out as outsider, it doesn’t have to be categorized in a certain way. I will accept him and appreciate what he can offer.”
And being an outsider has advantages for Lee.
The thing about [being an] outsider—and I made many movies as an outsider—the benefit of that is you’re objective. You haven’t really attached to it. You get to the subtext really fast,” he said. “People say how did you do The Ice Storm? It’s 20th-century American, seventies experience in the suburbs. It’s so accurate. You grew up in Taiwan. How did that happen? To me, I don’t know why that’s difficult. I see the subtext right away. On the contrary, when I make Chinese films, it’s very hard for me to see the subtext, what the movie is really about, the undercurrent, but the text I am familiar with. On the other hand, when I’m the outsider, the text I have to diligently adapt to, learning and checking with filmmakers. I didn’t make those movies overnight. I love learning, the learning curve. I love to work with people, getting inspired, and to learn from them.
I just made an Indian movie. The important thing the Indian audience feels ownership of the movie which happens and I’m very proud of that. I don’t want to be an outsider coming in and imposing my way of thinking. I want to learn from them. The thing with an outsider is accuracy I think is actually easy because you don’t assume you know. You diligently study and you research. And you’re very careful about accuracy. The subtext you see right away. Actually, that’s the benefit. The disadvantage of course is the culture, the mood of it, how you smell like it, how do you smell Wyoming. I don’t know gay cowboys. People are shocked at what appears in their eyes. How did that happen? How did it feel seventies American? I think that’s a lot harder. I have to admit I’m quite talented that way; I’m very good at guessing. I check with people and my guess is right on.”
He further said: “I think at the end of the day, movie is inspiration. It’s not about statement like I know this thing, I made a movie, I made a statement, you watch. It’s really about inspiration. It’s a provocation. I think you make it enough so that people can make the movie in their heads. I can never make a movie that’s as good as how people imagine [it to be]. So actually I did half of the job. I’m a skilled filmmaker. That’s what I do. But the rest of the movie you have to invite audience to project themselves, their fantasies, their emotions into the movie. It plays in their heads. For that end, I’m merely a filmmaker. I provide provocations. It’s not like I know all these things all my life. It’s filmmaking. I think that’s the wonder of it. And this is something I love to do.”
Lee could not pin down how he chose what movie to make.
Every movie I picked I don’t know why I’m attracted to it,” he said. “Like I grew up in Taiwan, what do I have in common with gay cowboys in Wyoming? But when I read the short story I cried. What hit me? And I tried to find out with the movie. And it was a very satisfying experience. And I went to different places. Emotionally, I got attached to it. As a filmmaker I have many, many satisfaction.”
On making movies out of books, he commented: “Book is good. I had to write my first two, three movies, because I was young and nobody gave me scripts. And I had to write. I felt writing is really painful. You’re alone. There are writers who say, how do you deal with work? How do you deal with so many people? I just have to type it down or write whatever I imagine, and that’s it. To me, it’s the opposite. We work with people, watch out for locations, do your research, you get all sources of inspirations. Books are wonderful. They’ve done their research. With two, three years of writing, there’s already lots of material for you. But writing, you take out something blank, you have to make up everything. To me, that’s lonely and painful. Once established, I was happy not to write anymore. But I do work closely with the writer.”
But when things are not working out for him and the writer, he joked: “It’s your book; it’s my movie. See you at the premiere.”
He revealed: “Aside from Brokeback Mountain, the books I chose are not necessarily my favorite books because they make me want to do something cinematically, not because the words, the book itself attracted me. Something hits me like The Ice Storm for example. It obviously doesn’t have a story. It’s not movie material.”
He mentioned one image that struck him while reading The Ice Storm, and the movie progressed to reach that particular scene.
When asked about future movie projects or dream projects, he answered: “I don’t have a checklist. I think I’m unique. Most filmmakers, they have a few things in development and they choose which one is ripe…I never do that. I’m a one-movie-at-a-time kind of guy. Once when I’m in pre-production I stop reading. I don’t care about others unless it’s really, really important like Brad Pitt sent to you his script ; you better read. Other than that, the movie turns to be my life. And somehow towards the end, something pops out, catch my attention. I think they catch my attention because it’s an extension of the movie I’m making. I think one thing leads to the next. They’re my life. That’s the way I live my life. I cannot imagine how my life is without movie-making. One thing I know, I know my wife would kick me out of the house. That’s the big reason. I’m not joking. Between movies, I’m like this at home (acts like a drunk slob). I’m like no good for anything. She’ll not tolerate me. Go make another movie. I think as long as I still have the stamina to make movies, I think I still want to make it.”
But Lee admitted that sometimes making movie can take their toll on him, especially the aspect of working with other people.
Making movies is fun but sometimes dealing with people is not fun,” he revealed. “It reminds you of a reality. This world has gravity. No matter how much you fly, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you still have to land and deal with people. And the more experiences I have, the more I can see where people come from. You can get really irritated. It can get on your nerves, and I have problems sleeping. Those times I would think about quitting but I still want to make movies. I don’t know what keeps me up. I feel like I’m the slave, not a master of filmmaking. When a movie wants to see the audience, they give me a call. I get possessed. There are a couple of movies that I felt, I don’t want to do you, just leave me alone. I don’t want to be your medium. Just leave me alone. And I couldn’t. For the young filmmakers, if you feel that way I think you should do movies. Because people I know who make movies, they’re that kind. They don’t know what makes them keep making movies. They just have to do it. We’re the slaves.” 

Ang Lee (third from left) receives the Lino Brocka Award of Cinemanila from director Brillante Mendoza; Angeli Bayani, actress of the Singaporean film Ilo Ilo, which recently won at the Golden Horse Awards; and director Tikoy Aguiluz

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