Paean to Ang Lee

It’s Oscar season, so as an Academy member, that means many functions.  I have somehow gotten on some very good lists. One highlight was the lunch for Ang Lee.  What’s ironic is that I doubt uber-publicist Peggy Siegel knew about our thirty-year friendship, and that we worked together on what was the first feature in each of our lives!   Here’s the little known scoop.

1982.  I had just returned from living in China for a year.  The literal and figurative chill of Beijing was warmed by my friendship with a young writer/army officer/free thinker named Yaping Wang.  I helped him leave the country, a feat of no small proportion at the time. He resigned from the military and accepted a scholarship to UCLA.

Prior to the school semester, he moved in with my parents who were living in Scarsdale, NY, a wealthy suburb.  He decided shortly after he arrived that he wanted to make a movie about America as seen through the eyes of a Chinese.  Already burdened with having to teach him how to drive and open up a bank account, not to mention shopping in a supermarket where he wasn’t buying “pig” but “pork”, I was not gung ho.

I asked in exasperation where the heck he was going to get the money to make a movie.  He looked around at the houses surrounding my parents’ and concluded that there must be some very wealthy people in the area.  “And you think you’re just going waltz through the neighborhood (where it seemed no one walked at all), march down some very long driveways, introduce yourself as someone newly from China, and ask them to give you money for a movie???”

And that’s exactly what he did.  And lo and behold, our neighbors, whom we did not at all know, the Dursts (who own a sizable chunk of land in Manhattan), and the Toppings (who ran the New York Times) gave.  And then my parents felt guilty, and they gave.  And then they got their Chinese friends interested in the movie, and they gave.

Soon Yaping was at UCLA and his idea took hold with his professors in the film school, and they offered up the equipment.  EAST TO WEST was thus born.

Yaping and another young woman, Ann Yen, who had just come from China to study at NYU film school, would travel across the country in a beat up old Cadillac (which reminded Yaping of the only cars he had seen in China –  Red Flag limousines carrying government officials), meeting ordinary, (and ultimately some extraordinary – Muhammed Ali is featured!) people.  He would ask them what their dreams and hopes were for the future.

We needed to hire a crew that was bilingual, to best communicate with Yaping.  We had little money.  We decided to hire from the NYU film school.  Our soundman was none other than…. Ang Lee.

Ang was the one that got most “qifud” (bullied) during this cross-country trip where the entire crew piled into one motel room. He good-naturedly drove the dying van carrying the equipment, even when the air-conditioning broke down, when no one else would.  He got the last of the food when others aggressed. He was so soft-spoken you could barely hear him.

We have pictures to prove that he looked exactly the same too, except for the graying.  He had both a perpetual smile and slightly pained look in his eyes–- because he seems to be simultaneously and acutely aware of both the joy and sorrow that is life.

When I first saw WEDDING BANQUET, I laughed so hard I cried.  I also cried tears of recognition because here were real people, from a culture close to mine, who were making magic on the big screen.  That had NEVER happened before.

Then we as an audience discovered Ang could disappear into any culture and imbibe it so thoroughly, his representation of it was seamless and authentic beyond reproach.  SENSE AND SENSIBILITY tickled me with delight because it was oh-so British and oh-so charming.

Then came ICE STORM.  Those were the same suburbs where my parents lived!  I took that train to Manhattan and went to school with those people.  The movie was absolutely, perfectly observed in every detail of this subculture.  To this day I have no idea why it did not receive the same kudos of many of his other films.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is one my favorite movies of all time.  Within the first few minutes of the movie, I was mesmerized, and devastated, by the anguish in Heath Ledger’s face.  From the standpoint of emotional nuance and depth, for me there is no more powerful movie than this.

Before BROKEBACK though, in 2000, Ang literally brought about a renaissance in a world I inhabited which was (previously, but no longer) extremely rarefied — that of Chinese cinema.  I had spent a good part of the 80’s promoting and distributing Chinese cinema in America, long before most people knew one even existed.  Beyond some quaint, artistic movies that received deserved attention at film festivals, Chinese cinema could not get noticed.

In one fell swoop, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON redefined China’s place on the world’s cultural stage.  While China searched for the appropriate content that could both represent its culture and be embraced abroad, Ang handed to them on a silver platter this hybrid of action, fantasy, historical epic, and pure art.  And it somehow it managed be both quintessentially Chinese and globally accessible. It was an elegant blend of art and commerce that many of us strive to achieve, but rarely do.

This gorgeously crafted martial arts film not only became an unexpected smash hit, it also spawned a decade of copycats, (almost all of which shamelessly adopt the word Dragon or Tiger in their titles.) Together they have helped lift China’s box office into a place first, of sustainability, and now, of amazing prosperity.  It is now common knowledge that China’s box office will surpass that of the U.S.’ in a matter of years.

With the unveiling of LIFE OF PI, Ang has reached new heights of cinematic wonder.  To me, LIFE OF PI is not so much a movie as it is an otherwordly, spiritual experience that happens to be bestowed in a movie theater.

As Ang himself so eloquently discussed at the luncheon, the movie is about faith.  It took faith, first of all, to pursue this nearly impossible proposition – that you could hold the audience’s attention when the only subjects on screen are a boy and a tiger.

The life-or-death experience of his character is not at all dissimilar, emotionally, to what we filmmakers go through – getting battered mercilessly by storm after storm, until one day, the sun miraculously shines down on you.

The sun is definitely shining on Ang now, as LIFE OF PI is touching hearts and breaking box office records all over the world — including in an unlikely place like China where supposedly people are only interested in making money.  Here too they are seeking deeper meaning in their lives.

One time, I visited Ang on the set of THE HULK.  We always chat in Chinese.  (I concluded after working with Milos Forman that any director would prefer the relaxation of speaking in his or her native tongue.) He was giving me advice on working in China.  We discussed how topsy turvy life had become for so many of us – naïve Yaping had become a trans-Pacific business mogul; bubbly Ann Yen was now shaking up her native Shanghai as the wife of the American Consul-General;  after many years working with some of the greatest Hollywood directors, I was finding inspiration to make films in China;  and Ang, born of a place that was for decades China’s greatest nemesis, was now its adopted darling.  Nobody could have guessed this turn of events.

An assistant brought Ang some mantou (plain, steamed white flour buns).  They are a staple of a Chinese peasant diet.  Ang said it was all he could eat as he was having an upset stomach.  He chewed on them slowly, and I observed this unlikely, monk-like presence, in his stillness and quietude, who was serving as commander-in-chief of a gargantuan Hollywood movie — and just like in the days of making our guerilla-style, 16 mm EAST TO WEST, Ang still had his sweet smile and slightly pained eyes, he still did not raise his voice, and he still left the best food for others.

To celebrate Ang is to celebrate many of the things – humility, perseverance, vision, integrity, and supreme talent — that I most cherish in humanity.