Ang Lee 李安 (II):Thank You, Xie Xie, Namaste, "lif...
Film Director Ang Lee: 'Telling Stories Is a Quest for the Meaning of Life'
Ang Lee's first choice of profession was acting. But his Chinese accent
made it difficult to get a break in America, where he had gone from
Taiwan to study at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. He turned to
directing instead. As a director, his voice is heard all over the
world. He has recently picked up a second best-director Oscar for Life of Pi. He had earlier won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain.
Lee believes that "life is a process of learning." He wants to be a
permanent student of film studies, so that "I can always make different
films, taste different roles, go to different places and experience
various stories…. I want to study my own life and discover myself by
making films…. My work is driven by feelings. I follow my feelings and
then communicate them to the audience.”
In this interview, conducted by students from Wharton’s Joseph H.
Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies, Lee talks
about his strong interest in experimenting with new themes, his focus on
cultural similarities rather than differences and the influence of his
own life on his movies.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
China Knowledge@Wharton: The films you have worked on are very diversified. Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Wedding Banquet and Life of Pi are so different from each other. How do you select the theme?
Ang Lee: It’s like traveling; you always prefer to go to a different destination each time.
We learn all our lives. School is just the beginning. All work is a
process of learning. I want to be a permanent student of film studies,
so that I can always make different films, taste different roles, go to
different places and experience various stories…. I want to study my own
life and discover myself by making films. For me, filmmaking is not
just work; it’s my life.
I have learned a lot of professional skills, too. After my fourth work, Sense and Sensibility,
I refused to be stereotyped. I tried diversified themes which needed
more effort and also some sacrifice in remuneration. After I tried
several different topics, people realized I would not be stereotyped.
It’s a big world and there are so many things to do. Why should we
repeat the same thing? Of course, there are some people who are getting
better and better in one direction. But I love continuous experiments
and adventure, and to learn and grow from that.
China Knowledge@Wharton: Given the rise of mainland
China, how can Taiwan improve its visibility? Also, many people think
that its cultural diversity is a competitive advantage for Taiwan. Do
you agree? How can Taiwan build on this?
Lee: I fully understand when you say that Taiwan’s
visibility is inadequate. Taiwan has a lot of so-called soft power. We
have been nurtured by Chinese traditional culture and have also absorbed
Western and Japanese culture to some extent. In addition, I think the
Taiwanese are very nice people. Maybe it’s because I am a Taiwanese
The basic quality of the Taiwanese people is very good, which is an
advantage. But the world doesn't understand Taiwan very much. So I shot Life of Pi in Taiwan partly to increase its visibility.
On the film industry in particular, I think Taiwan does not have the
infrastructure. All the basic elements are there; they are just not very
well organized. Our film industry has to become stronger and the
government should pay more attention.
Taiwanese people should have a sense of crisis. Young people like you
should be alert that we have to try harder because the current
advantages will not last too long. I think young people on the mainland
are more diligent.
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have built a cross-cultural communication bridge with your international works. Was that your original vision?
Lee: No. It was just survival at the beginning. My
original dream was to become an actor, although that failed because of
my poor English when, at the age of 23, I came to the U.S. to study
drama. I grew up in a Chinese milieu, but was quite gifted in Western
drama. Deep in my heart, I am still fascinated by the stage, though I am
now telling stories with the camera. I am a mixture of both Eastern and
Western cultures. I live in New York, and most of my colleagues -- from
idea generation, research and playwriting to post production and film
editing -- are American.
My first film in New York was sponsored by a Taiwan film company. That
was a hit with the mainstream Taiwan audience. My second work, Wedding Banquet,
got me some international recognition. My [early] films were mainstream
in Asia, but in the U.S. they were distributed slowly by art houses
because they were foreign-language films. After I made some Chinese
films, I began to shoot English films. I also joined the global tour to
promote Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This was an international hit.
As a filmmaker, I am a vessel. I feel something and then express it. It
is an experiment. We are driven by feelings instead of plans. You have
emotions and you express them. We are observed by others. Many artists
do not start with a concept. We are more intuitive. My work is driven by
feelings. I follow my feelings and then communicate them to the
China Knowledge@Wharton: Leaving aside your family members, who has had the biggest influence on your life and work?
Lee: My family members have had the most influence on
me. For example, fatherhood -- the dynamics between father and son -- is
a major theme in my work. How does the Chinese traditional culture
represented by my father survive in a modern society? How does he adapt
to a Western-oriented life?
Apart from my family, James Schamus, my long time working partner, is a
very influential figure for me. He is the one who takes care of me at
work. From the original idea and research to production, he is involved
in everything. He has written many scripts for me and has helped sell my
films later on. He is now CEO of Focus Features [a production and
distribution company], so he was actually the boss of three of my works.
He also teaches at Columbia University.
Many people who worked with me are close partners when we are shooting
the film. Their lives get injected into my perceptions and the theme I
am working on. When you are so engrossed doing one thing, the story you
are telling becomes your own story. The past four years, I have drifted
like Pi on the sea. In order to experience that loneliness, I didn’t
work with James on this one, which is the first time we were not
together on a film. I wanted to taste that loneliness, so that I could
finally grow, reach the other shore of the Pacific, and become a man
from a boy. My life developed in parallel with my film.
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have won many prizes globally and achieved a lot. What do you plan next?
Lee: As I was saying, I don’t have plans. When I was
young and unknown, no one wrote scripts for me. So I wrote them myself.
Now, there are people who write for me. I look at what stimulates my
imagination. Some directors can shoot different films at the same time. I
can’t. I always spend years on one film. Until that is nearly finished,
I do not select the next one. I don’t have too many hobbies in life. I
just love making films.
Right now, my work is at the crossroads. Life of Pi was more
high-tech and visual-arts involved. This was quite novel for me, but
also very expensive. In the future, I might go back to low-budget
At present, I am taking on a new project -- a TV play. I have never
done this before. The first episode is titled “Tyrant” and we are
shooting in the Middle East, which should be quite interesting.
My previous nine films were all made from books. I am still reading a
lot of scripts both in English and Chinese, so there is no answer to
your question yet.
China Knowledge@Wharton: I read an interview you did in 2008 after Brokeback Mountain
won an Oscar award. You mentioned that you have experienced a lot of
difficulties and challenges. What advice you would offer students like
Lee: Life is a permanent learning process. You have to
keep learning as long as you are alive. Never think you know the
answer; constantly challenge yourself. Life has so much to teach; school
is just the beginning.
For [those looking at a career in film], my advice is to write the
script yourself. When you are young, no one will write for you. It is
especially tough for a Chinese [actor] to find a good role in the U.S.
So you have to be able to write and create. The theme has to be novel
and connected with your life so that you have true feelings about it.
But it has to be above your personal experience and contain some
universal value so people around the world can accept it.
China Knowledge@Wharton: Would you tell us which of your films impacted you the most and why?
Lee: Actually every film was an experience for me; it was what I most wanted to do at that time. If you want to me to choose, it’s Lust, Caution.
For a Chinese citizen, it’s scary to talk of female sexuality,
patriotism in war and treason all in one story. It is easier to portray a
gay American cowboy [Brokeback Mountain].
One of the most important missions for drama is to explore human
nature. If everyone is calm and life is nice, there will be nothing to
examine or reveal. In Lust, Caution, I not only needed to
explore a topic I was scared about and unwilling to face, but I also
needed to expose a forbidden theme in Chinese culture. That film was a
painful, rebellious and unsettling experience. Americans are not as
interested in this story because they do not feel strongly on the
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have made films on
homosexual subjects. However, I feel that the target audience of these
films is mainly Westerners. How would you make a film on that theme for
Asian people, especially Chinese?
Lee: As a matter of fact, Wedding Banquet was
made for the mainstream audience in Taiwan. I was not expecting it to
be a box-office success in the U.S. That script was written by me for
the Taiwan Central Motion Picture Corporation. But they didn’t want to
make the film because of the homosexual theme. Americans didn’t want to
make it because it was too Chinese. So I got the chance to make it only
later. The movie was a hit in Taiwan and internationally. Brokeback Mountain was also received well in Taiwan. Some people have watched it more than a dozen times.
I am not sensitive about the nationality of my film. I grew up in
Taiwan in a Chinese culture, so my view of the world is more oriental.
At the same time, I have absorbed a lot of Western culture and
technology; I work closely with my American colleagues on everything.
Take Life of Pi, for example. It is an English-language film.
It’s an Indian story. It did best in Taiwan and mainland China. It
doesn't make a difference to me. I think you can find people you can
relate to in every corner of the world. People are not divided by
cultures. Your heart, beliefs and perceptions of art are more important
than cultural differences. This is human nature.
As a film director, I have to be able to capture the flavor of a
particular place. But the ultimate goal is to explore human nature
through the prism of culture, which is universal.
China Knowledge@Wharton: I like Life of Pi and have also read the novel. There are a lot of different interpretations. What is the major theme of your film?
Lee: When I first read the novel, I did not think of
religion. I thought of authorship -- the connection between the author
and the story. I think Life of Pi is not about religion; it is
about God. What is God? It is hard to define. We Chinese think anything
beyond three feet above our heads is God. Everything which is unknown to
you or not controlled by you is God. I think God is your emotional
connection to the unknown.
Oriental people worship mysticism; we respect things we don’t
understand. This book has inspired me to [look at] that unknown. We not
only need to know, we but also need to know that we cannot know. Faith
is the connection between us and the unknown in terms of our emotional
This involves storytelling. Why do we need to tell stories? Because
life doesn’t make sense; we can’t give it an artificial, logical
interpretation based on our own assumption and understanding. So we need
storytelling. A story will contain a structure, including a beginning, a
middle and an end. So the story itself is meaningful. I think telling
stories is a quest for the meaning of life. Pi is an endless and
irrational number. It’s always developing and it represents the
impenetrable, meaningless and ridiculous nature of life. We need stories
to make sense of our lives.
We are together to listen to a story and to share wisdom. We feel that
life has a meaning. But according to Buddhism, this is only an illusion.
But do you think illusion has less meaning than what you can touch or
China Knowledge@Wharton: As an international director
and producer, you are also a manager of an organization. You have to
consider cost, budget, promotion, profitability etc. How do you organize
this kind of work?
Lee: China has a saying: “Man’s calculation can never be as good as God’s calculation.”
There are many outstanding MBA and law school graduates working in the
film and entertainment industry. If we could calculate which movie will
make more money, we can all become very rich. The fact is that most
productions make a loss; you subsidize them with a few hits. From the
business angle, no one really knows the result [in advance].
You need to have the ability to organize work and control the budget.
You have a vision and implement it. You need to be very rational and
organized in implementation, which is my strength. I am not only a
director but also a producer. So I have to be very organized and
efficient at work. I do not think too much about whether the movie will
be a hit.
Music has something similar to math. So do films. It is not just
intuition. In such a big project, calculation has a role, too. But in
the end, you have to make people feel it is one piece – that it has not
been calculated. That can make it really touching.
I think the most important things are what you have not calculated --
like emotion. A film is an emotional ride. It has curves. The story
needs to be a flow and you have to capture emotions. This is something
you cannot get through calculation. You have to devote your heart. Art
is abstract; both sense and sensibility are crucial.
The questions in this interview were contributed by Lauder students
Charlotte McAusland, Michael Wu, Ying Wang, David Cummins, Kevin Lam,
Jeanne Chen, Lane Rettig, Edward Wu and Justin Knapp, and Theresa Jen,
director of the Lauder Chinese Language and Culture Program.
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