Ang Lee stars in the Lucky 13 Film Club

Welcome Stu from Popcorn Nights for helping me host December’s topic, the filmography of Ang Lee. Stu says: 

Not many directors can deliver an eclectic range of genres like Ang Lee. During the last twenty-odd years, he has consistently offered viewers four star films, and a few of them are outstanding. Some directors have bursts and lulls and some lose their mojo. Ang Lee, however, rarely wastes my time, and I appreciate that. Sense and Sensibility and Lust, Caution are my personal favorites.



Her role was dense and the story line creamy and hot, a mug brimming with secrets and meaningful glances; this quiet thriller simmers, and clocked at two hours and thirty-nine minutes, you’ll need time and a comfy couch to sip and savor this sensory treat. Chinese actress Tang Wei portrays secret agent Wong Chia Chi, or Jiazhi, involved in an espionage ring of revolutionaries who plot to kill Mr. Yee, a despised, political official of the Imperial Japanese Army during 1938-1942. Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, this unusual love story encapsulated a range of emotions including passion, tenderness, hatred, and sacrifice–it hearkened to nineteenth century sophistication like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. The obvious theme is secrecy. No one is who they claim to be, and the cast of characters are surprised at the lengths they are willing to go for their passions. This is an Ang Lee specialty. No character is allowed to be simple. When it comes to relationships, they are complicated and universal.

Let’s talk about sex. 

Rated NC-17, for the first hour, Lee establishes the back story and has us empathizing with Wong Chia Chi as the naïve girl who loves to go to the movies and discovers she is good at acting at her Chinese university. She assumes the identity as Mrs. Mai and infiltrates the inner circle of Mr. Lee. Coy and confident, we can see she is acting, mimicking the actresses she has seen on the screen and participating in a cause for the rebellion. When she becomes Mr. Lee’s mistress and the sex happens, Mr. Lee and she reach a level of intimacy that flips what is real and what is fake. The world gets their masked exteriors while out of their need for one another, trust and authenticity blossoms. I wasn’t watching sex, I was privy to a concert of the beautiful music of blended bodies. Sex was a supporting character of the composition. That level of intimacy combined with beautiful costumes, exotic settings, and great acting by the entire cast, few directors (Jane Campion’s,The Piano) have managed to pull it off–love–but Ang Lee succeeds here.

I am echoing Tom’s questions and invite you to comment about any of Ang Lee’s films. Why do you like Ang Lee? Is it the complicated love relationships? His genre repertoire? His collaborations? His experimentation of special effects and how it is used to extend the story line?


54 thoughts on “Ang Lee stars in the Lucky 13 Film Club

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  1. My favorites were The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility. As a romantic in love with relationships I enjoyed S&S for it’s beauty though I didn’t think it had the depth of the movie Persuasion. In a way I find Emma Thompson too earnest but I could look at Kate Winslet for hours. She carried the film. Hugh Grant wasn’t my favorite Jane Austen male lead but oh well. The Ice Storm was miserable and funny and icy. I loved the mood of the film but certainly didn’t want to be where the characters were.

    I remember everyone raving about Crouching Tiger. I hated it. I thought the magic of it looked fake and I couldn’t get past that. The Life of Pi I wanted to love but the ending was unsatisfying for me and I didn’t love the human characters (I loved the tiger).

    1. Hi Adrienne, thanks for stopping by today. I agree with you regarding S&S–Grant is completely miscast–way too pretty–I didn’t mind Alan Rickman but thought he was too old (yeah, I know he was supposed to be 15 years older, but I couldn’t buy it that Kate Winslet’s character Miss Dashwood would reciprocate earnest love. Yes, Emma’s pinched expression and her explosive hiccup at the climax distracted me. Even so, I still love the beauty of the film and could watch it over and over. I was happy Emma Thompson won an award for Adapted Screenplay, for she is one of my favorite actresses.
      Regarding Crouching Tiger, I loved it. Life of Pi, I loved Richard Parker the best as well.

    2. I very much agree with ‘miserable and funny and icy’; it’s tragic and witty in equal turns, and although people will always remember Sigourney Weaver for her career-defining role as Ellen Ripley I think that her performance in The Ice Storm is one of her best. Rest of the cast are good too, particularly Joan Allen and Kevin Kline. Sense and Sensibility I haven’t seen…I ought to watch it at some point!

        1. He is always good…and I haven’t seen him in anything for years! Ricki and the Flash is on my list of films to watch for 2015, but I can’t remember the last time I saw him in anything.

  2. Although ‘Crouching Tiger’ was full of careful set-pieces and vivid colours, I don’t like that fantasy genre so much. It cannot hope to compete with the work of directors like Kurosawa (Ran, Kagemusha, etc,) in terms of oriental historical epics. I was never a fan of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, hated the casting of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and thought that ‘Life of Pi’ was too reliant on CGI. So, what do I like?

    As you ask, (you did, I heard you…) it is one of the films hardly ever mentioned whenever Ang Lee is spoken about. The wonderful, ‘Ride With The Devil.’ one of the best modern films ever made about the American Civil War. Where other films like ‘Glory’ and ‘Gettysburg’ rely heavily on re-enactors and large battle scenes, Lee goes instead for the quieter moments (in the main) in an area of the war rarely covered; the border conflicts around Missouri and Kansas. A fine cast give believable performances, in a setting of excellent historical accuracy. Even Tobey Maguire manages to convince, as the young man drawn into the guerrilla war on the side of the Confederacy. The script and mode of speech is also unusually correct for the period, and the small moments of action, alongside the epic depiction of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, provide all the required thrills. I have no doubt that another follower will comment in more detail, so I will leave it there.

    Just to add in closing, that if you like to see films about the US Civil War, and appreciate a mix of history, romance, and exciting action, then this unsung work of Lee will give you all that you need, and a little bit more.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Pete, I’m with you 100% on “Ride With the Devil.” I was no fan of Ang Lee going in, having previously seen only “Crouching Tiger,” which I saw as the Star Wars of martial arts films..and I mean that in a very bad way. As one who saw all those classif SF pictures in the fifties, that childish attempt to revive the crummy buck rogers serials just about made me puke. And I was fully immersed in Asian films at the time of Crouching Dragon, as i was doing research for my contributions to the videohound guide to Asian Cult films. Crouching tiger struck me as an amalgamation of the dozen of movies i was seeing then for the first time. It had nothing original to offer. So “Ride With the Devil” nearly blew me out of my seat. It was the first movie I had ever seen that showed with any accuracy the fate of the average southerner during that period of history. It is said that the victor is always the one who writes history, and it was surely so as regards the American civil war. One thing that impressed me was Lee’s deftness in his portraiture of the freed slave who. as southern myth often has it, cried over his former master’s body when it fell in battle. Yet at the same time, Lee emphasises the importance of freedom to this man when he admitted that primary emotion he felt at the death of his friend and former master was the joy of freedom. Few directors, or even people for than matter, cannot keep two contradictory truths in their head at the same time. Lee can. and there is so much. The casting was perfect, especially Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the villain. Casting a boy who is prettier than Scarlett Johansson as the psychotic rebel who thrives on murder gave this villain a chilling dimension that would have been impssible for a conventional snidely Whiplash. Tobey maguire was excellent, which surprised you much more than it di me. My surprise was how good Jewel was. And of course she didnt have to do much to be as good as she was, because Lee knew exactly how to use her in order to stir such a plwthora of emotions form the audience. Yes, “Ride with the Devil” is an epic movie. Had it been made in a hipper era, when more people were able to know a good from a bad movie, it would have been been regarded as the film Major Dundee might have been had the producers not subverted it.

      1. I agree about Jewel, who I had never heard of before, and also about Rhys-Myers, who is well-known as a ‘pretty’ villain in the UK, and made a great Henry VIII on TV.
        Thanks for filling in all my blanks, Bill. Great stuff!
        Best wishes, Pete.

      2. OMG. I have to see this film. Sigh.ARG. I can’t wait to rent it. Your point about contradictory and simultaneous feelings is exactly what I love about Ang Lee. He has a propensity for finding the opposites of a paradigm and merging them. Homosexuality. Slavery. Enemy countries. Man and Beast. Scientific and Love. Age, gender, time. That’s why Ang Lee is solid.

    2. Hi Pete! ARRGG– Ride with the Devil is one of the only ones I haven’t seen; I am embarrassed. I caught up on a lot of others and I ran out of time. But since so many people admire this Western, I have to watch it even though I’m not a Tobey Maguire fan. That’s an interesting point you and others are making. You can like an Ang Lee film even if part of the cast seems off, and those that you didn’t care much for he seems to be able to get the most out of their acting abilities. As a director, he runs the gambit of casting. I think of Coen Bros. or Mr. T. who brings back frequent stars to his screen as a trademark; not Lee. But the stars he has act very, very well. Solid acting is important to me.

      1. I don’t like Maguire in anything else, Cindy. He suits this film though; the innocence lost, and his character’s development through the story, is handled very well. Besides, everyone else is good enough to watch even if you still don’t like him, especially Rhys-Myers. I don’t really consider it to be a Western either, as it is specifically about the Civil War. I really hope that you enjoy it.
        Best wishes, Pete.

    3. Well Pete…I’m sold. It’s another one of Lee’s films that I haven’t seen, but it sounds compelling. I’ll try and rent it in the coming year. An odd-looking cast, on paper, but both you and Bill below state that the people I’d maybe have doubts about acquit themselves well.

      1. I hope you like it, Stu. Otherwise I will feel responsible…You needn’t worry too much about the cast in truth, as they all do a good job.
        It’s not a cinematic ‘great’, far from it, but we were discussing Ang Lee, so it came up. Regards, Pete.

        1. No worries Pete…I will bill you for my time if I don’t like it! I haven’t seen a Lee film yet that I hated; I’m ambivalent about Life of Pi, but otherwise a fan.

  3. Ang Lee is not one of those personality-driven directors like Quentin Tarantino who imprints their ego on every frame of film they shoot. Lee is no prisoner to affected style. He is free to find the right look and feel for each particular film. Like Howard Hawks, Lee is comfortable in all genres, and people tend to cite the films as their favorites those that most coincide with their personal tastes. Just as i prefer the westerns of Hawks to his screwball comedies, I prefer Lee’s American myths (Ride with the Devil, Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, Leaving Woodstock) to his emulation of Asian genre pictures (Crouching Tiger, Lust Caution.) But I can’t say his directing is better when he is making the kind of movie I like than when he is making one to which i am indifferent or even hostile. His directing is consistently excellent, and despite the breadth of his narrative interests, his movies are united by his atterntion to the many ways in which the dynamics of relationships are changed by actions and events by both the principal and supporting characters. His primary concerns in directing a film are always character and story. Even in a movie as visually self-consious as “The Life of Pi,” the purpose of those visuals is to establish milieu, not to impress the viewer with a style disassociated from the material. Leean cares about the changing dynamics in the relationship between the boy and the tiger far more than tickling the audience with 3D gimmickery because that is the milieu in which, although he does exploit such gimmickery, his film exists.

    1. Your reply, Bill, is wonderful. You’ve explained him as a director in a way I wish I could have, thank you 🙂 Character and story should be up there as a goal of a solid film and the reason of his success, yes? I also like Tom’s point that even his bad films like say, Hulk, have a human relationship behind the bad CGI that elevates the film compared to other CGI blockbusters that lack dialogue and a satisfying plot. I supposed I love Ang Lee because he cares most about the story; if I were a screenwriter, I would want to write scripts that he’d direct. He brings to life book adaptations better than anyone out there. He gets to the heart of the story.

      1. Yes, I’d echo your comments at the start Cindy, a very interesting summation of Lee’s work as a director, Bill.
        I’m going on a slight tangent about Hulk; I wouldn’t make a case for it being a ‘good’ film, or even a ‘good’ superhero movie, but it’s one of the few that I can think of that has lodged itself in my head because it gets to grips with the fact that the story has its roots in comic books, principally through the use of comic book-style panels to move the story on or provide exposition. I watch equivalent Marvel or DC-related films these days and it’s almost as if they’re embarrassed by the origins of their stories. The CGI was mocked at the time of release, and I expect that still continues today, but I liked the fact Lee’s ‘hero’ looked fake. It’s a giant radioactive green man with superhuman strength, for goodness sake. Why would you want that to look realistic?!

        1. A fine defense, Stu. Have you read the book Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”? It’s one of my favorite books highlighting the birth of comics in 1938–it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001. I would bet a fiver you’d love it.

          1. Just read it about six months ago! Yes, I very much enjoyed it, and loved the way it dealt with that golden era. It’s a book that repeatedly surprised me…every time I thought it was moving in a certain direction it went a different way.
            Ang Lee would make a good adaptation!

  4. cindy, I wrote the above comment and posted in , not knowing i was not signed in. I tried to retrieve the text but could not, .so i rewrote it ;;improving on the first version. now it has appeared as an anonymous comment. if possible, could you delete it? thanks. bill

  5. I dont suppose you can have Larry McMurtry write a screenplay from a short story by E Annie Proulx without there being some confusion as to exactly what the story is about. Here is my interpretation of “Brokeback Mountain.” Ennis is a horny young rogue who will, and is used to screwing, the handiest available hole, whether it belongs to man woman or sheep. Jack Twist is a romantic young virgin who mistakes a purely physical one night stand for a love affair. Had he been seduced by a girl instead of a man, he would have reacted the same way, but it being a man, he identifies himself as primarily homosexual. Ennis clings to his emotional detachement as evidence that he is straight. Twist is as euphnism for a gay, and Ennis, of course is only one P short of being a Penis. It is important to note how sex starved both of these men are in the period preceding their act of sexual congress. There is enough dialog to suggest they talked about it incessantly, so it was inivitable that they would do something about it. The movie is no more about gay cowboys than The Children’s Hour is about lesbian schoolteachers. Both movies are about ithe ingress of sexuality into a friendship, and the different responses of each character to the presence of eros. Ennis marries and would be happy to keep Twist as a fishing buddy, but Twist is a full blown suffering romantic who cannot accept anything less than committment. But committment cannot be built upon a sexual relationship alone, and Ennis refuses even to be an equal partner in their sexual activities. Many interpret the film as being about a man (ennis) who is afraid to give up everything for love. But I disagree. Ennis never was in love, He does not leave his wife because he is happy with her. Twist, however, is miserable in all aspects of his domestic life because he is hopelessly in love with a straight guy. What I love most about the film is Lee’s use of space, from the opening scenes in the parking lot that seem to come right out of Hud, to the closing of space between the two men in the sleeping bag. Also the different senses of space both men experience with their wifes and families, and the lie of masculine freedom in the open air fishing scenes.

    1. Another provocative analysis, Bill. “The movie is no more about gay cowboys than The Children’s Hour is about lesbian schoolteachers.” I agree with that and it’s a fair comparison.
      I do think I’ll go ahead and disagree with you about Ennis. Why? That closing scene, when he sniffs the shirt and his longing and emptiness is acute. I think he’s more than a hole filler. I loved that scene when he recalls his childhood past and recollects the murder where they dragged a poor soul behind the truck as punishment. I think Ennis is a coward and that’s his remorse. I think you are spot on with Twist. I love your discussion of space and the expansive and closing of it to replicate their relationship.

    2. Hi Bill – some interesting food for thought there, although I disagree with some of it. I see Jack as a gay man who feels (or is) trapped and conditioned by the society around him to the point that he marries a woman because he believes that’s what he has to do. His interactions with other men in Texas and Mexico all seem to suggest he is either gay but in a straight marriage or a bisexual man who leans more towards men than women. With Ennis it’s the other way around; he’s either a bisexual man who leans more towards women than men, or again he’s gay and feels unable to define himself as such or live life as a gay man because of attitudes towards such relationships. The incident he witnessed as a child is obviously key, crippling Ennis with fear; it seems to be the main block stopping him from being open about his sexuality and living with Jack, and it’s interesting that he imagines that Jack has been brutally beaten when he finds out about his death. I guess this is a fairly conventional reading, but thought I’d throw my 2p in in the spirit of discussion.

      I like the point about the use of space; having just watched it the other night I noticed that the two main characters are shot in close up a lot more during the scenes in their respective towns, away from the mountain.

  6. Hi, Cindy:

    I caught onto Ang Lee with ‘The Ice Storm’. Which actually made winter in Connecticut look tolerable, if not attractive. An intriguing 1970’s story wrapped around a more than capable cast. Could have stood a bit of stream lining and trimming back of extraneous secondary plots lines. Though the cast is superb. With adults and teens digging around and exposing ennui, angst, peer pressure and mid life crises. Anger, confusion, warts and all!

    Lee’s take on the ‘Hulk’ bears a strong resemblance and homage to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s original comics. With frames within frames during action shots. Bur WAY too much back story with abusive dad, Nick Nolte.

    ‘Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon’ is just plain lush to look at. With the “hook” of aerial fights scenes among bamboo gardens executed flawlessly. In ways that would make earlier Shaw Brother offerings pale in comparison. While ‘Life of Pi’ is a sometimes shocking, often humorous childhood fantasy brought to life life through melding live action with seamless CGI.

    1. Kevin, thank you for stopping by! As far as Hulk goes, it’s a stylistic call whether you like the frames and homage to Kirby and Lee, but I agree the backstory is too long. I supposed you could say that with many of his films–there’s a whole story in understanding people not just the current chapter but the past that made them that way in the present. Lee likes to show you the motivations. He really is a lover of books, you can tell.

      1. True.

        The over all story telling and plot lines remind me very much of the best of Japanese Anime. Where the story is told well and usually up front, With lots of time and space afterwards for back stories through meticulously detailed flash back to connect all the dots, characters and doing what they do.

    2. The Ice Storm was my first, as well, although Crouching Tiger… was the first I caught at the cinema. It sounds like you are a fan, Kevin. The former is a film that really gets underneath that upper-middle class veneer of success and stability…I really am due a rewatch.

      I remember being wowed by Crouching Tiger when I first saw it. Such a great-looking film; the fight among the treetops you mention is probably my favourite in the movie…really breathtaking cinema.

  7. I haven’t seen that many Ang Lee films but those that I have seen I absolutely loved and I really enjoy the diversity. I think it shows true talent to be able to take on a wide range of projects so successfully. My favourite is Brokeback Mountain followed by Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

    1. Hi Abbi! I scratch my head and can think of only a few directors who can deliver the breadth and depth of Ang Lee. I’m convinced his secret is he stresses on strong stories of relationships with multi-faced characterizations. He is great for book adaptations!

    2. Hi Abbi. I need to see quite a few of his films too, although I think I’ve ticked off most of the main ones. I agree that his talents are quite wide-ranging, although I’m not much of a fan of Life of Pi!

  8. Great post! Unfortunately, I am not that familiar with Ang Lee’s films, but cannot help but marvel at the variety of his films, transcending genres and cultures. On one hand, we may have visually stunning, full-of-action “Life of Pi” and “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, but then we also have more “intimate” “Lust, Caution” and “Brokeback Mountain”. Amazing.

    1. It’s quite something isn’t it?! Anyone who has seen all of them has pretty much covered most of the popular genres of cinema of the last 50 or 60 years. Maybe Lee will take on sci-fi soon.

  9. I’ve yet to see a few of Lee’s films like Ride with the Devil and Lust, Caution (which I’ve owned for ages) but I’ve certainly caught enough of his films to realise that few are as talented or so focused on whatever genre takes his fancy. He’s the type of filmmaker that doesn’t put his own idiosyncratic style on his films. I could watch his films and not know that it was him directing as he’s so in tune with the material and, unlike a lot of directors, leaves his ego aside. Even when you do know it’s him, it’s hard to accept its the same guy.
    There are very few with this remarkable ability.

    1. Those are two I’ve missed, Mark. I’ll try and get to them at some point but you know what it’s like. I think that’s a good point about his ego; it’s not all about him and the imposition of a style (or at least there is a style but it changes dependent on the subject matter).

  10. Sorry I missed this discussion Cindy & Stu! Ang Lee is definitely a unique filmmaker, and he can tackle pretty much ANY genre which is just unbelievable. Even Hulk which got a lot of criticism was ok, it’s perhaps way too philosophical in the end but it was still a decent film. I have yet to see Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, oh and also The Ice Storm, which I’ve been meaning to see. You already know this Cindy, but I LOVE Sense and Sensibility with a passion. It’s one I often revisit and still find something to appreciate and admire every single time.

    1. Hi Ruth! I missed you, but knew you were busy. I love S&S as much as you, and Lee’s ability to cross genres makes him great. It’s interesting that his Hulk is garnering more respect in retrospect than when it first came out. So glad you came by!

      1. Oh you should’ve told me to head over to your blog! I actually did but thought it was the announcement post to Lucky 13 so didn’t think to leave a comment as I’ve already done that. Sorry! Yes I think Hulk had a lot of detractors initially but when people revisit it, it’s actually got some great moments. I for one love Eric Bana as Hulk. Btw, you’ve seen The Ice Storm, yes? I really should see that soon.

    2. Hi Ruth. Damn I haven’t been by Flixchatter for a while; I’m sorry about that and will drop in for a read soon! I highly recommend Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm…two very different films but both very solidly made. Sense and Sensibility is one that I haven’t seen, though I’m not a major fan of period dramas. I should give it a whirl sometime.

  11. I’m really not into an analysis of the movie art forms but I’m always interested in the comments and applaud your sensitive treatment of a subject many shy away from.

    I wasn’t watching sex, I was privy to a concert of the beautiful music of blended bodies. Sex was a supporting character of the composition. That level of intimacy combined with beautiful costumes, exotic settings, and great acting by the entire cast, few directors (Jane Campion’s,The Piano) have managed to pull it off–love–but Ang Lee succeeds here.

    That was so brilliantly expressed.

    1. You’re sweet, Ian. I’m more conservative than most people I know when it comes to propriety and sex in films–I am shy. But when it’s elevated to such an art form, I applaud it. You really have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. Thank you for commenting!

  12. My favorite Ang Lee movies are “Broke back Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Ride with the Devil.” I felt the “Crouching Tiger . . .” and “Life of Pi”were movies so zen-like and interestingly unique that I was happy I saw them on the “Big screen.”
    Cindy, I found Hugh Grant perfect in his pairing with Emma T. who at the time was also beautiful and fresh looking. She may have been the elder sister but she was still matched well with H.G. in his character.
    My favorite H.G. movie with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and Colin Firth is “Love Actually.” It for ten years has been my “go-to” holiday film to cheer up but cry, too. E. Thompson cries in this one, while Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now.” My youngest daughter, now 30 and I sob, too. Love which lasts through a difficult moment. Not Ang Lee but the same featured trio of actors doing an amazing job! 🙂

    1. We cry at the same time! I’m not surprised. It’s a guilty pleasure and a film my daughter and I watch together and chuckle the whole way through. Interesting connection with Love, Actually and S & S !

    2. A lot of people seem to be praising Sense and Sensibility and Ride with the Devil. I’d like to see those two a lot more than I did this time last week.

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