(1954 - present)
Three Key Films: The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Underrated: Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Not only a feast for the eyes—the opening scene depicting Chef Chu (Sihung Lung), who has literally “lost his taste,” painstakingly prepare Sunday dinner for his three emotionally distant daughters is almost musical in its composition—but also holds the promise of much of what Lee’s work would come to be revered for: his great narrative patience; his generous and thoughtful use of silence; the lush eye through which he views the melancholic worlds he creates; his exploration of the tensions between tradition and modernity; and the dangers of self-repression.
Unforgettable: The spare, crushing moment at the end of Brokeback Mountain (2005) when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) explores the childhood bedroom of his deceased lover Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and discovers a pair of blood-stained shirts—mementos from their roughhousing years earlier—hanging together in the closet “like two skins,” as Annie Proulx writes in her celebrated story on which the film is based. Ennis, whose anguish over the impossibility of their romance has turned him a steel wall, finally succumbs to his grief, bringing the shirts to his face in an attempt to inhale Jack’s long-gone scent. The moment is a perfect representation of the film’s slow emotional burn, and when relief comes, it does so with a grace and introspection that Lee so expertly architects.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The Legend: Born to traditional, education-focused Chinese parents in Taiwan (his father served as principal of the high school he attended), Lee twice failed, perhaps serendipitously, the entrance exam necessary for a university education. Much to the chagrin of his father, Lee went on to study dramatic arts at nearby academy before immigrating to the United States to study film at the University of Illinois. He subsequently pursued graduate studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where his star quickly rose: he won several awards, and was eventually signed to agent representation, based on the strength of his thesis film.
Lee, still struggling with tensions between he and his father (and parallel tensions between his eastern and western self), went on to write and direct his feature length debut Pushing Hands (1992), the tale of an elderly martial arts instructor who moves from China to suburban New York to live with his son and his American daughter-in-law. Pushing Hands would prove invaluable to Lee’s development as a filmmaker not only because of thematic concerns that would carry over to his future work, but because it would also go on to inform his stylistic and technical approach to moviemaking. A literal filmic merging of his two conflicting identities, it marked the advent of what would become one of Lee’s greatest assets: his unique perspective as the constant outsider. “I never know where I am,” Lee says, “[so] I trust the elusive world of cinema more than anything else. I live on the other side of the screen.”
This perspective would serve Lee well in his adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm (1997). Set in affluent 1970’s Connecticut at the height of the sexual revolution and strewn with characters whose inability to connect proves tragic, Lee plays with concepts of emptiness and isolation throughout the movie: barren trees, sleek, cold, colorless home interiors, and exchanges between characters often slow and spoken without much eye contact. The film possesses a kind of distanced intimacy that further elucidates the emotionally stifled world of Moody’s novel, an aspect that may not have translated as potently onscreen if helmed by another director.
His next film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), would thrust him into international mainstream success. Though most commonly lauded for its epic story and groundbreaking, astoundingly choreographed martial arts effects, it still brims with a staid elegance that is quintessential Lee. The concepts of distance and gravity, previously explored only metaphorically in Lee’s work, were now at play in a fantastic, physical sense. Those sequences were unlike anything audiences had seen before, made possible by Lee’s ability to take in and consider the emptiness of space and fill it to his suit his inimitable vision.
His greatest artistic risk, however, would come with his adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, which won him the Oscar for Best Director. What could have so easily turned laughable—a film about two cowboys in love, sporting a title ripe for punning—was instead instantly regarded as one of the most wrenching and enduring love stories ever put to film. The “private, intimate feel” Lee sought to achieve is perhaps what allows viewers to connect to the film’s long-suffering lovers: devoid of any preconceived notions of “gay identity,” it instead purely focuses on the forces of love and its terrible obstructions. Again, Lee makes crucial use of space and emptiness, the film populated by few supporting characters and a vast Midwestern landscape that is both whimsical and foreboding.
Though Lee’s commitment to a patient, open-ended narrative approach does not always garner appreciation—his interpretation of Hulk (2003) proved too cerebral and poignant for filmgoers wanting a twenty foot green goliath to smash his way through two hours, and the small scope of Taking Woodstocks’s (2009) excised much of the grandness of the historic festival in favor of character development—it is this fascination with the smaller gestures, regardless of scale or genre, that makes him such an essential contributor to contemporary cinema. Lee’s hesitance in claiming a distinctive identity manifests in his work not with the disruptive affect of a man torn between, but rather with the confident contemplations of one who has decidedly freed himself up to imagine and realize worlds through a perspective solely his own. Joe Vallese