Oscar-winner Ang Lee says he's still learning with every movie
In the bonus specials on the DVD of Ang Lee's movie "Hulk," a collaborator calls the director the nicest and the most ambitious man in show business.
Lee's initial response to that is, "If he says so."
The Academy Award-winning director, who will speak at Roger Ebert's Film Festival after the screening of "Hulk" at 11 a.m. Saturday, went on to talk more about those concepts.
"I think I'm ambitious. The most? I dare not say. If I say I am one of the most ambitious ones, then I have to hide that ambition in the movie. As I grow older, sometimes I do have a temper that I can't put a lid on anymore.
"Sometimes when I have an idea, it's hard to believe that I'm nice. I'm nice in terms of my demeanor. I try to be as good as I can be when I'm dealing with people. Most of the words that come out of my mouth tend to be nice and tolerable and agreeable. I think that's the surface."
On a deeper level, the filmmaker said he works with "ambitious, pushy ideas" and "the psychology of nastiness."
For example, with his most recent movie, "Lust, Caution," as well as with "Hulk," the director said he was exploring the "nasty thoughts" underlying them.
"And I don't shy away from dramatic effect or motivation," he said.
Indeed, those aspects of his filmmaking have made the 53-year-old Lee one of the world's leading filmmakers. He has directed at least 11 movies, been nominated for a slew of awards here, in Europe and Asia and won many, among them eight Academy Awards out of 27 nominations.
In 2006, he became the first Asian to win an Oscar for directing, for "Brokeback Mountain," an independent film that he thought would not receive much notice.
It became a cultural touchstone.
Lee said he never thought he would achieve such success. "Now the Asian filmmakers and students can dream about that," he said. "From the late '70s and '80s, they couldn't even dream about it. I could only dream about that after I studied and went back to Taiwan. I thought, 'Maybe I can make movies in Taiwan and work my way up.' One thing leads to the other."
The screenplay for "Pushing Hands," his first feature, won a contest in Taiwan, his native country, and was released there in 1991 to much acclaim. After that, he made "The Wedding Banquet," which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for best foreign film.
Lee went on to make nearly one movie a year over the next several years, with the most striking thing about his oeuvre being the diversity of genres and subject matter. Lee said he's merely curious about different genres.
"I have a fear of getting stale," he said in a telephone interview from his offices in Westchester County in New York. "If I keep doing the same thing, I might feel like I'm doing a job. And also I think I'm an avid film learner. I want to feel like the career is like film school, like forever a film school to me. If I feel I know what I'm doing, it probably won't interest me."
While his first movies garnered great reviews, Lee didn't become famous until his thrilling martial arts film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was released in 2003. The Chinese-language film became the highest grossing foreign film at the time.
His most recent movie is the controversial "Lust, Caution," also made in China. Because of its graphic sex scenes, it received an NC-17 rating in the United States.
"Lust, Caution," set in 1943 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, tells the story of a young Chinese woman who is drawn into a radical plot to assassinate a top Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese. The young woman first draws him into an affair.
"I know this film went deepest for me and almost drove me insane," Lee said. "It's very personal. It went into something very private – not only lust but patriotism and what they say acting is about, which is what life is about. "
Lee said he has a special feeling for "Hulk" as well.
"I made a big effort. That was the most ambitious work I did. A year before that, 'Spiderman' came out, so the movie had to be so 'Spiderman.' I'm honored that our alumnus Roger Ebert took that one as the overlooked one. I have a special feeling that I have to go" to the festival.
Of all his movies, though, "Hulk" received the least favorable reviews, mainly for its special effects, done by Industrial Light and Magic. Ebert, though, liked the 2003 film.
"The movie brings up issues about genetic experimentation, the misuse of scientific research and our instinctive dislike of misfits, and actually talks about them," Ebert wrote. "Remember that Ang Lee is the director of films such as 'The Ice Storm' and 'Sense and Sensibility,' as well as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'; he is trying here to actually deal with the issues in the story of the Hulk, instead of simply cutting to brainless special effects.
"Just as well, too, because the Hulk himself is the least successful element in the film. He's convincing in close-up but sort of jerky in long shot – oddly, just like his spiritual cousin, King Kong. There are times when his movements subtly resemble the stop-frame animation used to create Kong, and I wonder if that's deliberate; there was a kind of eerie oddness about Kong's movement that was creepier than the slick smoothness of modern computer-generated creatures."
Actually, Lee is responsible for the animated Hulk movements and acting. He donned a motion-capture suit to play Hulk, who in the nonanimated portions of the movie was portrayed by Eric Bana.
Lee said he had tried to find a decathlon athlete or "ultimate fighter" who would perform as the giant green Hulk in the animated scenes. But athletes tend not to have any acting skills, he said.
Besides, Lee knew just what he wanted. He said "Hulk" had been cut and edited down to the exact frames before anyone had an image in mind of the Hulk. "Nobody knew how he fit in more than I did. I figured if I put on the suit and did it, I would save a top animator a lot of work. It was kind of therapeutic."
Lee had always wanted to act. He grew up in Taiwan watching mainstream Hollywood and Asian movies and cartoons. After failing the university entrance exam, he attended the Academy of Art in Taiwan, where he studied theater and cinema.
As a transfer student, he entered the Department of Theatre at the UI, where he studied for two years before receiving a bachelor's of fine arts degree in theater in 1980. While at the UI, Lee met his future wife, Jane Lin, a microbiologist, and watched five to seven art and foreign films a week.
"I really caught up with great movies, and I got more and more into filmmaking," he remembered. "At the same time, I didn't find theater directing as interesting. I applied for graduate school at New York University and also applied for theater there, too, staying at Krannert Center. I got both. Over that summer, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. It's a lot easier for me than the theater linguistics."
And once Lee began making movies, he knew he'd found his medium.
"I like making movies like the way I act, except with the tools of cinema. However, the actor's mind never leaves me. I will always feel like I'm shooting actors, shooting dramas. Sometimes people have visual ideas of what movies they make. I have to visualize the drama. The heart of my work is mainly establishing the acting."