Taiwanese film director Ang Lee put Taiwan on the map as he joined the top ranks of international filmmakers with his second Oscar for Life of Pi. Lee was born in 1954 in the southern Taiwanese city of Pingtung. He credits his father, his wife, and Taiwan for his success.
Lee said his father, Sheng Lee, a high school principal, played a pivotal role in his life by passing on the stories and ways of traditional Chinese culture to him that shaped him and his filmmaking.
“Father never explicitly expressed support for my career as a film director, but he was the key person who led me to success on this path,” Lee said in an interview with Taiwan’s TVBS. “He taught me what Chinese culture is about.”
In 1979, Lee went to the United States to study theater at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and then on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he received his Master of Fine Arts in Film Production.
Lee’s parents supported him financially, which allowed him to complete his studies in the United States, and helped him keep afloat during six years of unemployment after graduation.
Before he passed away at age 91, Lee’s father encoura’ged him to continue on. “Put your helmet on and keep charging ahead,” he told Lee, who, exhausted after The Hulk, was considering giving up movie making.
Lee took his father’s advice and soon started working on his award-winning movie Brokeback Mountain. Lee’s wife, Jane Lin, a molecular biologist, is likely the most important person in his career; had it not been for her, Lee might have become a software programmer.
Lee thought about studying computer science to find a job after many unsuccessful attempts to make his first commercial movie. For years, the couple and their two sons lived on Jane’s meagre salary. But Jane disagreed:
“There are already more than enough people studying computers. The world can do well with one less computer programmer like you.”
So Lee continued being a stay-at-home dad until 1990. “Most of the time, I stayed at home cooking, picking up kids from school and doing housework,” Lee said, describing his life back then in his biography 10 Years of Sleep Movie Dream. He added: “Jane hardly questioned what I was doing.”
But pushing 40 and not being able to provide for the family was not easy.
“I was lucky. My wife provided for the family all by herself and never asked me to go find a job,” he said in his biography. “If I hadn’t met my wife, I may have never had a chance to pursue a career in movie production.”
When she was once asked how she supported her husband, Jane said: “I’m not his supporter. I leave him alone.” This, Lee said, was just what he really needed.
Jane once told Taiwanese media: “Ang Lee can do only two things: making movies and cooking.” She also joked that Lee is “like dead” when he can’t make movies. “I don’t need a dead man as my husband,” she said.
Besides immersing him in traditional Chinese values during his early life, Taiwan was also the first country that officially recognised Lee’s talent and offered him a chance at directing.
In 1990, just when he was deeply tormented by his unemployment and at the brink of giving up filmmaking, two of his screenplays won first and second place in a national competition in Taiwan.
The awards turned Lee’s career around. Taiwanese producer Li-Kong Hsu invited him to Taiwan to produce his first movie, Pushing Hands. Their second movie, The Wedding Banquet, won the Golden Bear at the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival in 1993 and was nominated Best Foreign Language Film in both the Golden Globe and the Academy Awards.
It also became Lee’s first foothold in Hollywood. Lee always takes every opportunity to give back to Taiwan. He told the Taiwanese media: “I’m not too concerned with the Oscar award, but Life of Pi was made in innovative ways in Taiwan and reflects the Taiwanese spirit.”
He also said: “If it won, I would be able to thank Taiwan in front of the world.” And he did just that in his speech at the Academy Award ceremony after taking away four awards for Life of Pi.
In fact, 80 percent of the film was shot in Taiwan, but it took some persuasion on Lee’s part to convince the Hollywood investor that it was the right choice.
Life of Pi has benefited Taiwan in a number of ways. The production staff spent over $10 million in Taiwan, and Lee also involved many Taiwanese movie professionals and suppliers during the casting, allowing them to have a chance to observe Hollywood’s best talents at work and learn from the pros.
It also opened up an avenue to the international stage for some Taiwanese companies that had proved their capabilities to Hollywood during the collaboration, according to Taiwan’s Business Weekly magazine.
In addition, United States-based Rhythm and Hues Studios (R&H), one of the world’s top visual effects and animation production companies, and the lead visual effects company for Life of Pi, is expected to spend about $US198.2 million to set up two studios and manage a movie fund that will co-finance and co-produce major Hollywood motion pictures with Taiwanese investors over six years, Taipei Times reported.
A different story in Mainland China
Lee’s success has sparked discussion on the Chinese Internet, comparing Taiwan’s environment with China’s for film professionals. Many Chinese commented that all these great things would not have happened to Lee if he was from the mainland, given the communist regime’s efforts to do away with traditional culture and the restrictive censorship, which stifles creativity.
Traditional Chinese culture was all but destroyed in Mainland China during the Great Cultural Revolution, but was preserved in Taiwan, political commentator Chen Pokong said in a Voice of America talk show. But without the communist interference, Taiwan’s sound social, cultural, and educational systems can produce Oscar and Nobel Prize winners, he said.
In Mainland China, talented artists are either suppressed for their liberal expression, like Ai Weiwei, or bought to work for the system, like Zhang Yimo, Chen said.
Chen added that those artists who are able to survive in that system have been stripped of their empathy toward humans and nature, a quality that permeates Life of Pi.
“Such harmony is beyond the imagination of artists in China, where human rights, animal, and environmental abuse have become extremely prevalent,” Chen said.