Ang Lee’s Perfect Little World

Cinema to the Max
Eye of the tiger.
Eye of the tiger. // Creative Commons

Earlier this week, two of my friends and I went to a course screening of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I’ve seen the movie a couple times in the last few years, but I went anyway. First, because you should always jump at the chance to see a movie in actual film print. (A bit snobbish? Absolutely.) But second, because I knew I was in for something special.

“Crouching Tiger” is a truly moving film — a story not so much about star-crossed lovers as it is about the frustration of love in the face of culture, tradition and obligation. And of course, there’s a lot of kung fu. Not even in that hand-to-hand way: more like in that mythical weapons/flying through trees way. Beautifully choreographed and economically shot, here is a film that offers us all a glimpse into a very genuine place in our hearts — that dark recess that nags at you, telling you that whatever it is you’re doing isn’t really making you happy.

You end up watching movies like “Crouching Tiger” to remind yourself that you’re a human being with emotions and dreams and fears. Anyone, across any walk of life, can let the humdrum monotony of the day-to-day dull their senses. “Crouching Tiger” helps to show us that we have to take smart risks. We have to pursue that which brings us legitimate happiness — not just what puts a wishy-washy smile on your face for one, two, three hours at a time.

It’s a very broad idea, but there’s a universal nugget somewhere in there that, at the end of the day, points to a pretty idyllic way of living your life. You do what makes you happy, provided you’re a good person. If more people took a trip down that avenue, the world would be a better place. And I think Ang Lee knows it too.

The Taiwanese-born filmmaker is a true outsider. Lee’s family left China in 1949 for Taiwan, then left Taiwan for America, then eventually returned to China. A foreigner everywhere. But Lee picked something up along the way: awareness. After seeing “Crouching Tiger” the other night, I ran through his list of movies to find a thread.

Lee’s first couple films — from “The Wedding Banquet” to “Sense and Sensibility” to “The Ice Storm” — all trace the paths of families in flux. His characters often struggle to adapt. Or at least, they struggle to maintain appearances. These are also all characters seeking some form of happiness within themselves. Some find it, many do not, but Lee keeps plugging away.

He won his first Best Director Oscar in 2005 for “Brokeback Mountain,” which is in many places condemned and dismissed as just a film about gay cowboys. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Brokeback,” like “Crouching Tiger,” follows a duo denied their right to happiness by the circumstances around them. And like “Crouching Tiger,” the characters must confront a bittersweet demise.

A couple films later, Ang Lee struck Academy Award gold again with “Life of Pi” — itself a technical achievement that dazzled and mesmerized anyone who saw it. But beneath the incredible aesthetic is yet another story that can speak to all of us: one of fear. It’s a film that subsequently feeds us darkness while still offering hope that peace is out there to be had.

So what do we take away from this career? Ang Lee is no doubt an accomplished man. His ethic and his quality of sheer output is all the more impressive considering he’s likely got many long years of work ahead of him. But something stays constant along the way: his sentimentality.

Lee travelled back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, emerging out the other end with a few pennies and a wealth of stories. With each film, he reminds us again and again that for Ang Lee, there indeed exists some perfect world out there.

But Lee rarely offers direct answers to the questions he explores. Rather, like a great storyteller, he throws his characters into situations that demand their best. If they can’t quite cut it, there’s no guarantee they’ll last very long. And the same goes for us. Life will always be there to test us beyond what we think is our furthest degree, but we must keep conviction in ourselves. We need to know what we want and strive for it. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time.

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