In films like The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, the gentle humor, intelligence and wit of director Ang Lee have transcended cultural boundaries. His first major studio film, an adaptation of a Jane Austen classic, was a British costume drama that the Taiwan-born, America-based Lee turned into a worldwide hit that grossed over US $125 million and garnered seven Academy Awards. In September, his latest film, The Ice Storm, a family drama featuring an all-star American cast and set in Connecticut in 1973, debuted at the New York Film Festival.
The filmmaker talks to Nancy Matsumoto
The Ice Storm is such a departure from your first three Chinese films and your Jane Austen period piece. Why were you interested in the Rick Moody novel?
Because it’s different. Actually, it has the elements I was dealing with in those other films: characters who are readjusting, dealing with problems and confusion in a changing society. It’s about a family undergoing change, and the family is a miniature of society, where security, hopes, warmth and love lie. This film has those elements, except it’s the reverse of what I did before. In the movies I made up through Sense and Sensibility, the social code is somewhat restrained. There are boundaries to personal will, and people are trying to free themselves from those constraints. In 1973, though, when The Ice Storm is set, it’s the aftermath of the sexual and political revolution. It’s an awkward period of change, the beginning of what we are today. The social code is actually liberating: it’s hip to be rebellious. The restraining and conservative force in this case is nature, the ice storm, which puts a restraint on how far human nature can go.
The theme of societies in flux seems to appeal to you. How do these stories and social upheavals parallel your own life?
This last movie was harder for me. I had to do more pretending, acting, because I didn’t go through a sexual revolution. Taiwan is kind of like Japan. Back in 1973, it was still somewhat conservative, but in sync—in terms of information and fashion—with the rest of the world. You knew what was happening, but you didn’t enjoy that kind of freedom yet. You knew what was going on, but it was indirect.
Did that make The Ice Storm a more difficult movie to make?
It was more scary than difficult because people lived through it. It’s not like making a movie about Jane Austen’s time. Nobody today was alive then. So as long as I do my research, my guess is probably as good as an Englishman’s. But for people who grew up in the U.S. in the seventies, the Ice Storm period is still very fresh in their memory. They can be very opinionated. I didn’t find it too difficult to direct because the crew helped a lot. It’s in the filmmaking that I take the lead, where I can learn, observe, adapt. In some ways, it’s easier for me as an outsider to see through the texture of the times and examine the essence of what’s happening, without being distracted.
You’ve been in the U.S. almost 20 years. Do you see yourself as more American than Taiwanese?
I’m a mixture. I think a person’s identity is very much tied to how they grow up. One’s vision is very rooted if it’s in a single place: someone who moves from place to place, that’s another story. But I was born and raised in Taiwan. My parents fled Communist China to Taiwan, so I’m a mixture to begin with. Taiwan itself is a combination of China with heavy Japanese and American influences. The natives are somewhat closer to Japanese than to mainland Chinese in a way. But I grew up watching American movies, reading subtitles, and that was all very influential. I came to the States when I was 23. I’d done college and two years of military service, so I was already grown up. But I’ve certainly adopted a lot of values and ways of thinking from the Western world, particularly America.
At what point did you become interested in movies and filmmaking?
It’s something I always wanted to do. We were raised a lot like young people in Japan. You had to get into a good college. The upbringing was serious, practical, academic. There wasn’t much playing. But I loved to watch movies. My mind wasn’t on books, and I failed the college entrance examinations. Because of that, I got to try theater at the Taiwan Academy of Arts. It was like a hideout before the next year’s exams, but once I started I knew it was for me. Even earlier, when I was about 14 or 15, my father asked me which college I wanted to go to. I said I really wanted to be a movie director. I don’t know why I said that, and of course my parents laughed. They thought it was funny. Unfortunately, that’s really what I wanted to do.
How do the well-known British and American actors you’ve worked with compare to Asian actors?
The Chinese are a lot like the British actors, in that it’s about show business. It’s about performing. The Americans take method acting more seriously. For them, it’s more about motivation—accepting me, watching me. The English and Chinese are more about performance. It’s the profession they’ve chosen, and they perform behind a mask, it’s a role. Sometimes we filmmakers like to dig into that, and I’ve found the American actors are probably more comfortable with being observed and exposed than the English and Chinese. But the Chinese are more uneven. Sometimes you’ll get veteran actors who are talented, skillful—great performers. But you also find newcomers who aren’t very experienced and need basic training. So when I deal with the Chinese, especially younger ones, I have to come up with a training program.
Before you began shooting Sense and Sensibility you encouraged Kate Winslet to do t’ai chi to help her performance.
It’s actually just a t’ai chi warm-up. I started t’ai chi because my first movie, Pushing Hands, was about t’ai chi exercise, so I got into it at first for filmmaking purposes. Then I really became intrigued by the philosophy and found the exercise to be good. The essence is very similar to actors’ exercises, which enable you to find concentration through relaxation. Kate didn’t have as much formal training as the other British actors, but I insisted on casting her. It was my responsibility to enable her to play up against Emma Thompson, to bring out the gracefulness and play the part of an aristocratic, decent sister. So I taught her that exercise.
Is it true that you also start off each shoot with a Buddhist good-luck ceremony?
Yes, all Chinese filmmakers do that. It’s not really Buddhist, it’s more of a traditional prayer session. On my first film, I wondered if I should do it, because I wasn’t in Taiwan. The assistant director, who came from Taiwan, said I should do it, but just among the Chinese. But then all the Americans wanted to join in. They found it exhilarating, and so we’ve done it ever since. It becomes a very spiritual thing. We put out an altar table with fruit. I do it simply, layout the table facing south, then give everyone incense. We all pray to the four directions. I tell them to pray to whomever they believe in up there. After that, we have a quiet moment of prayer. That’s a moment I really treasure. The whole crew is together in silence: you just feel the togetherness. After that, I ask for the gong to be hit, everyone cheers and we roll the camera, as a symbol of starting the shoot.
Sounds very harmonious. But at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, there was actually some friction between you and the cast.
Some, but it was my first experience with movie stars. I came from directing Chinese films where the ethic is probably like that in Japan. You’re like the emperor, the will of the movie. You don’t really explain. That’s something I found very different between Eastern and Western culture, at least in modern times: we grow up taking orders, not putting up too much argument until one day you’re mature enough to give orders. There’s not much communication or debating. But in Western society, the education itself is more eloquent: they’re used to debating. I didn’t really have that skill. This was the first time that anybody had challenged me, even as simply as saying, “Why?” or “Can we do it the other way?” It was a shock to me. I didn’t know how to react, but I had to keep the authority, the face. I’d done two movies in New York prior to that. But in low-budget, independent New York filmmaking, you don’t pay people much; it’s a young crew and the morale comes from their belief that the director is a genius and that they’re doing something significant. But when you get in a major-league situation—not to mention another culture—it takes a while to adjust.
How did you manage to win them over?
By showing that I was upset. I couldn’t debate with my English. But they showed respect for my work ethic and the fact that I had a good track record. I had to be somewhat more humble and do a lot of swallowing, learning and listening. If I couldn’t win the debate, I’d let things go chaotic a bit and then come back with reasoning. It just takes longer, requires more patience. But I told myself I couldn’t screw this up because I’m a Chinese filmmaker and the first one to do English literature. I had to make it work.
What do you think about the current crop of Chinese directors who are making names in the West?
I don’t’ think we’re the most sophisticated bunch yet, but we’re energetic; there’s a lot of creative power. That’s very attractive to an audience. There is a basic yearning to see something fresh, and directors like myself and John Woo are able to supply that. As the Chinese say, the world, the chi, is rotating. There are times when it’s fashionable to watch Japanese films and times when European films are more in vogue. For Chinese films, I hope this is the beginning of a more sophisticated filmmaking, not just a fashion that will come and go.
In your early films, food played an important role, and you yourself love to cook. When did your interest in food begin?
I grew up with a food culture, like a lot of Chinese. We had a cook at home, our family caretaker in Taiwan. My father used to have friends over, and they’d talk about how this or that dish was made. When I came to the States, I didn’t really miss home. As a young artist, I was overwhelmed by the learning experience, by culture shock, and I was very taken in with the theatrical education. The only thing I missed was the food. My wife, who was my girlfriend then, and I worked for the cafeteria in a student dormitory in exchange for free meals. After five days of eating Western food, I felt really sick. So starting from my memories of how our cook did it and with the limited resources I had, I started to pick up cooking. In the six years after film school, when my wife went to work, we had a kid and no money to go out, and I was stuck at home writing scripts. I developed my cooking. It’s a lot like directing, but more relaxing. Like movie-making, cooking is sensuous; it’s got feeling. You’re putting ingredients together, imagining how it’ll end up, and praying for a good response. Later, once I began making films, I was away for a lot of the time, so cooking became a way of me showing affection. I sort of put that feeling into the father’s role in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. He doesn’t really want to talk to his daughters, but he’ll cook.
Do you really cook meals and freeze them for your wife and children before you go away on a shoot?
I still do, loyally. And I wash the dishes. But nothing else. My wife takes care of everything else besides the kitchen.
Your wife is a research scientist and you’re a filmmaker. They’re such different professions; how does that work for you?
I like it; it’s a good combination. You can take care of different aspects of family life, and you don’t really get on each other’s nerves. If I was married to a filmmaker, that would be difficult. Not only would it be competitive, but there would be a lack of privacy. Now, I can do nothing, be lazy, but say I’m thinking and my wife will buy it. To me, what I have now is privacy. I wish I knew more about her world, but there’s just no hope.
How has being a father affected your work?
In the first three films I made, I was using my father as my reference for the main character. In The Ice Storm, I became the reference for Kevin Kline’s character. In the first three movies, the filmmaker’s position was the son’s; with my latest, it’s the father’s. It’s not about complaining or sympathy for the older generation, but about the fear or insecurity of being a father—that you’re not doing a good job. In a way, that’s like directing movies, too, pretending you know, giving orders, setting rules. It’s scary, actually. The modern father is about being a nice guy, about reasoning. To me, that’s tougher because you don’t know what the standard is. I feel more like the kid than the kid himself.
When you were making The Ice Storm, immersing yourself in the story of a family disintegrating, did you see parallels with what’s happening in contemporary Asia?
Yes. What happened in 1973 in the States happened in 1983 in Taiwan. Why did humans all start building cities 8,000 years ago? There are natural forces at work, certain historical steps. The West has taken the lead, but sooner or later the East will face the same issues. It’s universal. We’re talking about democracy, the changing of patriarchal feudal society, the change from agricultural to industrialized, capitalized society. It’s about how people create machines. Once you do that, you have a middle class and democracy. But you can’t just build machines and not deal with the software. Unfortunately for the east, we’re still catching up, so we have less time to do the changing.
The change seems more accelerated in the East.
So it’s sometimes more confusing, more chaotic, dramatic. Perhaps because of that, more damage is done. We have no choice. It’s not like you want to go back to how things once were.