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Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


King Of Masks
Ang Lee has built a brilliant career out of depicting characters with secret identities and closeted passions. So what lies beneath the surface of Hollywood's quietest genius?
- By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

 

It's easy to see how the titular ridgeline of Ang Lee's new cowboy romance "Brokeback Mountain" got its name. Its silhouette is interrupted with a sharp, unexpected cleft, as if shattered by a giant's hammer. What's left behind is two lonely peaks, separated above by an impossible, impassable distance -- but they are joined together below the horizon.

It's a perfect symbol for the film's star-crossed gay lovers. And it's an equally good one for its enigmatic director, Ang Lee. The adage has it that no man is an island, but Lee is, his friends and colleagues agree, at the very least something of a peninsula -- connected by just the narrowest of land bridges to the Hollywood machine that feeds him and purposefully removed from the mainstream social whirl of his adopted home, America.

"One of the things that Ang brings to all of his projects is his deep sense of being a double exile, an outsider's outsider," says Larry McMurtry, co-author of "Brokeback"'s screenplay. "It allows him to connect with, to find his way to, other exiles and outsiders."

Rather than isolating him, Lee's stranger-in-a-strange-land status has liberated him. In learning to accept and trust his idiosyncrasies, Hollywood has given him creative rein to tackle projects set in wildly varied milieus -- from the mannered period banter of "Sense and Sensibility" to the misbegotten sexual adventurism of "The Ice Storm," the transcendent pulp fantasy of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the comic-book psychodrama of "The Hulk."


And as other critics have noted, his cultural distance frees him from entrenched bias and conventional wisdom, making his explorations of American society and history, like "The Ice Storm," the unjustly maligned "Ride with the Devil" and now "Brokeback Mountain," uniquely fascinating.

"I love exploring authentic American territory: Civil War fighters, comic book heroes, cowboys," Lee says in a recent interview as part of the "Brokeback Mountain" press junket.


"I know all of these are cultural icons, but I feel like when I look at them, I see the 'other side of the moon' -- the side that nobody sees. I didn't grow up here, so I don't know the metaphors, the subtleties. I just dive in. And that makes my perspective somewhat rare and fresh. It takes a foreign director to shoot that way, with that way of looking at things."

It's refreshing to see an Asian American director -- an Asian American anything, for that matter -- viewing his bicultural identity as an asset rather than a liability. Lee, who was born in Pingtung, Taiwan, and only came to the United States to attend grad school in 1978, readily cites his Taiwanese upbringing and Chinese heritage as deep and permanent influences on his work and sensibility.

"Who I am, how I was brought up, I use that a lot in my work," he says. "I feel that deep inside of me, there's a mistrust of depending on things. Everything changes: That's the essence of life. It's kind of Taoist. At a certain age, every Chinese person thinks that way. That's our belief; that's our faith."

That understanding of the permanence of impermanence, the bone-deep awareness that the only absolute is the absence of absolutes, is the paradox that has allowed Lee to become -- as Time magazine put it, in dubbing him America's "best film director" -- "a cosmopolitan chameleon [who] seems at home in any culture while viewing it with an outsider's ironic acuity." To Lee, culture, identity, sexual orientation -- all of the social phenomena that occupy so much of our time and concentration -- are merely filters through which one can observe the common experience of being human.

It's why he can so readily shift frames of reference and engage in such a myriad of subjects. The flip formality of a 19th century British socialite, the melancholy loneliness of a wandering swordsman, the suppressed rage of a mild-mannered scientist, the nonverbal yearning of a gay cowboy -- all of these are mere masks, behind which lies not universal truth but an infinite series of other masks, extending backward into the void.

It's said by some that the core element in the Chinese personality is passive-aggressiveness, as evidenced by a tendency to avoid conflict, to suppress emotion, to communicate in code or not at all. If so -- and this assertion strays to the edge of stereotype -- it's understandable, given the brew of philosophical inputs that make up Chinese culture: the Confucian concept of dual realities -- one formal, one functional; the Buddhist notion of life as transient, and the world as an illusion; the Taoist idea of complementary opposites, yin coexisting with yang.

But it's important to note that there are corresponding merits to being passive-aggressive. It's a quality that leads those afflicted by it to become microscopic observers, with an unerring eye for detail and subtle variation. It enhances their reservoirs of intuition, making them experts in nonverbal cues, in finding the emotional truth and unspoken messages behind complex social situations.

The earmarks of this trait are found throughout the work of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and their peers of China's Fifth Generation, and in the films of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, of the Taiwanese New Wave.


In Lee, the trait, and the quirky advantages it conveys, is brought to a kind of Platonic ideal. "That's my essence as a filmmaker -- repression," he says. "It's in my character. I try to be a partygoer, a social animal, but at some point I always fall back on the genuine struggle in life between personal free will and social obligations. It's a constant battle in my life, and it shows in the work I've done."

Never more so, perhaps, than in "Brokeback Mountain," a film whose tone and sensibility could arguably have come only from a straight man who understands what it's like to be closeted. An alien American. An Asian American.

"Ang intuited that this is a story centered on emotional repression," says Diana Ossana, "Brokeback" producer and co-author, with McMurtry, of the film's screenplay. "So much in this film is underneath and underground, and culturally for him, I think he understands that."

Lee has said that the film revived his sense of passion, and renewed his interest in filmmaking, after the traumatic experience of making the expensive and critically panned "Hulk" and the physically exhausting ordeal of shooting "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which Lee describes as eight months of round-the-clock toil and effort.


"I was wrecked by my previous two movies," he says. "I was in terrible shape. I was thinking of taking a long break or even retiring. And then I made this -- a small film, a film that could be nurtured. It was a healing process."

And yet as pleasurable as the film was, it was still a painful creative journey, because for Lee, making a film is an exercise in digging down and getting past his comfort zone.


"In each movie, I have to use different material. I have to peel off something of myself," he says. "Because once someone sees something I've done, it's hard to pretend it's fresh anymore. It's like an onion -- I have to keep ripping off layers, and each time it hurts more. Layer by layer, each time you have to go deeper in order to be honest -- to find out more about the world and reveal more about myself."

A difficult process, and a painful one, but that is what he does and that is what he is. "Making movies is my 'Brokeback Mountain,'" he says. "It's a fight, it's an effort, but at the end, I've found my secret place. The place I feel at home."


-----
Jeff Yang is author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop-culture news.


URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2005/12/20/apop.DTL


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
©2005 SF Gate
 
12/25/2005, 2:54 pm Link to this post Send Email to nchristi   Send PM to nchristi AIM
 
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Nice to see my hometown get a mention. emoticon
引用 (quote):

the Chinese personality is passive-aggressiveness, as evidenced by a tendency to avoid conflict

Well, born as it was during a period of constant warfare, Taoism (aka, The Way) is big on managing conflict.

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Re:Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


class blockquote the Chinese personality is passive-aggressiveness, as evidenced by a tendency to avoid conflict ...to suppress emotion, to communicate in code or not at all.

You left out the good part! Image emoticon

Is Pingtung a huge city? Or small enough that your families might have crossed paths? Mr. Ang Lee certainly seems to be an interesting fellow.
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Re: Re:Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


class blockquote nchristi wrote:

Is Pingtung a huge city? Or small enough that your families might have crossed paths? Mr. Ang Lee certainly seems to be an interesting fellow.
Pingtung City's population is a little over 200,000, so it's pretty close in size to Glendale.

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I was so confused by the author's title "King of Masks". I had to look it up on IMDB to be sure Ang Lee didn't direct King of Masks. And then, had I been thinking, King of Masks was a mainland production. Doubtful a Taiwanese director would do a mainland film....I have seen a couple of Ang Lee's Taiwanese films, but not his American films, unless Wedding Banquet is considered American. I suppose after CTHD, he's no longer called a Taiwanese director...as the author of the above article points out. If you haven't, watch King of Masks..it's really a wonderful film about art, tradition, and family.

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대 한 민 국!
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posticon Re: Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


i never saw brokeback monutain but i heard itz about 2 gay cowboys trying to fine love or somthing it sounds really weriod and gayImage
3/18/2006, 9:08 am Link to this post Send Email to meglovesya   Send PM to meglovesya Yahoo
 
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Re: Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


class blockquote meglovesya wrote:

i never saw brokeback monutain but i heard itz about 2 gay cowboys trying to fine love or somthing it sounds really weriod and gayImage
Well, gay lifestyle is not exactly a new subject matter for Ang Lee (who is married). See, for example, the excellent Wedding Banquet, which gets shown on cable periodically. The director has talked about his fascination with how sexuality is restrained, very much so in Taiwan, moderately so in the U.S., and in Europe.

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Gay Cowboys are organized


Though this is completely off topic, I thought it would enlighten some folks. Check out this link for the International Gay Rodeo. If you do a google search for Gay Rodeo, you'll see all of the individual organizations for each state in the U.S.

http://www.igra.com/

If you haven't been around cowboys, you'll be interested to know that they, generally, love to dance and are famous for their poetry. Not that cowboys who dance and recite poetry are gay......the two are obviously unrelated.

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Re: Interview with Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain)


okkkkkaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy so the movie is about 2 gay cowboys ?
ImageImageImageImageImageImage
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