Ang Lee’s boyhood angst turns into cinematic glory

Eddie Ying-tarng Song, The China Post

Los Angeles — Ask Ang Lee what it felt like to be the principal’s son in an elite high school, and he will give you a big yawn. He didn’t study hard enough, and yet he hardly ever partied. “If my childhood was made into a movie, the audience would definitely fall asleep,” said the internationally acclaimed filmmaker. His other directorial endeavors, however, mesmerize audiences home and abroad. His “Father Knows Best” trilogy: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, and later Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has not only won accolades at various award ceremonies but also pushed the hidden appeal of Taiwanese cinema out of the art-house arena, into the global spotlight.

Looking back on those humble school days, Lee let out a sarcastic laugh followed by a heart-warming sigh. “It was the Dark Ages of my family, those six or seven years,” he said.

It all started after he beat out most fellow examinees from other junior high schools in 1970 to enroll himself at Tainan First High School, disputably the most prestigious high school in Taiwan (the future president Chen Shui-bian was four years his senior). A stepping stone into a top-tier university, the boys’ school, dubbed Bamboo Heights, made each student take all subjects over again should he flunk either math, Chinese literature, or English. As if the situation wasn’t stressful enough, his principal father, Lee Sheng, would not be happy to see the oldest son go to anything less than a first-choice university, let alone show business. Nevertheless, after Lee graduated in 1973, not with flying colors, he was only good enough for a college of his 108th choice, National Taiwan Academy of Arts. To add insult to injury, his brother Lee Kang, now a local filmmaker, failed to pass the exam to get into Tainan First High the very same year. The brothers’ lackluster academic performances were tantamount to two punches in the face of the senior, a brooding patriarch whose children dreaded him. “So I decided to take the Joint College Entrance Exam again the following year, while studying at the academy,” Lee said. During his freshman year, Lee won the Best Actor award in a national drama contest. He later failed miserably again at the entrance exam, but had found his true passion in life.

With the Dark Ages on Bamboo Heights behind him, Lee embarked on a cinematic career. He graduated from the academy and served the military in 1975, then went to the U.S. to study film at the University of Illinois and then onto New York University’s Film School, picking up a few student awards along the way.

In 1985, as he finished graduate studies at New York University, he was set to head home when a film agent approached him with a movie deal. At the time his wife Lin Hui-chia was still working on her doctor’s degree in chemistry, the proposal seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime dream opportunity. “Who doesn’t want to make an American movie?” he asked himself.

After a year, however, he finally came to terms with reality. “No matter how much of a hotshot you are as a student filmmaker, no matter how much a major studio values you, “ Lee said, “a good script just doesn’t fall into the hands of a rookie director.” He realized that, in order to make it big as a director, he would have to come up with an captivating and small-budget screenplay to go with his directorial talent. He ended up a stay-at-home dad and struggling writer, relying on his wife’s paychecks to make ends meet for six years. This tough time wasn’t without its rewards; he cooked up the script for “Pushing Hands,” and eventually was signed to work with the KMT-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation on his first try in local cinema.

“The other reward from those six years as a ‘house-husband’, “ said the 48-year-old father of two, “is that I learned to cook really well.” Even when his movie career was taking off, he still took care of the family’s dietary demands. Before one of his trips back to Taiwan for business, he made over 100 water dumplings to put in the freezer for his wife and children.

The making of “Pushing Hands” proved to be a trying test for Lee. “I wasn’t shooting a low-budget film; it was a no-budget film!” he exclaimed. With a coffer of NT$13 million for a movie set in New York, Lee didn’t allow any room for errors or overtime in the process, which wrapped up in just 20 work days.

Dozens of awards later, the bashful, soft-spoken Taiwan native remains unassuming. His next feature film, The Hulk, has been in the work in the Bay Area for about two months now, but he declined to elaborate on it, citing a gag order on all production crew. By the time this big-screen adaptation of a popular ‘70s TV series hits the theater next summer, Lee will have begun shooting the prequel of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Jet Li, who turned down the leading role the first time around and opted for gang-action flick Romeo Must Die, is still Lee’s ideal pick to play Lee Mubai in the prequel, hoping to recapture the sensational box office appeal of the first one, the highest grossing foreign-language movie in U.S. history. If you can’t wait until next summer for another Ang Lee fix, here’s something you shouldn’t miss out on: check out for Lee’s action-packed, high octane exotic thriller Chosen. In less than seven minutes, viewers experience the Baroque-laced high-strung chase sequence, while catching a glimpse of Lee’s son Mason in his first leading role. If the son picks up a few acting awards, the father knows best. “I won’t be too unhappy either,” said the director with a hearty chuckle.