Cinema and Media Studies Ang Lee
by
Kin-Yan Szeto
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0247

Introduction

Having garnered international acclaim for his work, the Taiwan-born Academy Award–winning director Ang Lee has found artistic and commercial success on both sides of the Pacific. The peripatetic director has shot films all over the world. Lee has not only brought international attention to Chinese-language cinema, but also has gone beyond his Taiwanese and Chinese cultural roots to speak to audiences all over the world. His multiple affinities with Taiwan, Hollywood, and Chinese-language cinemas have resulted in a rich amount of scholarly works on an international scale. In examining Ang Lee and his works, scholars and critics investigate perspectives on how Lee’s films are able to cut across cultural, national, and sexual boundaries. Primarily, Lee’s ability to blend artistic and philosophical sources from diverse backgrounds successfully in both Eastern and Western cultures has made him a distinguished and versatile director. In his films, Lee demonstrates his emphatic ability to identify with the unique individuals who are at the margins of society, culture, and history, such as the gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, atypical heroes in Taking Woodstock and The Hulk, the martial arts heroine Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the Confederate South in Ride with the Devil. Whereas Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy demonstrates the impact of globalization on cultural identity, his later English-language films, such as The Ice Storm, deal with the moral disillusion and dejection in the context of globalization. The wide range of discussions on Lee’s films extends to women’s studies, gender studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, and American studies. His works such as The Wedding Banquet, Brokeback Mountain, and Taking Woodstock deal with queer issues and desires that are suppressed by the mainstream society. In addition, Lee also tackles the sexual and social identity of women in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibility; and Lust, Caution. Furthermore, most of Lee films are adaptations from literary works of both English and Chinese writers, such as Jane Austen and Eileen Chang. Eileen Chang, for example, is a legendary writer whose works have been adapted into films by many filmmakers. In 2007, Lee took up the challenge of adapting Chang’s short story Lust, Caution. Overall, as a resourceful artist with a diverse repertoire, Lee is able to balance the demands of commercialization and his own pursuit of artistry. To Lee, his films are reflections of his personality and an expression of individual freedom. The director’s proficiency in translating between Eastern and Western cultures enables him to reinvent the conventions in both English- and Chinese-language films.

General Overviews

This section provides a general summary of the range of scholarship on Ang Lee during the years of his development as a filmmaker. Ma 1996 argues that in the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, Lee’s “immigrant subjectivity” breaks the “nationalist and non-nationalist” barriers in racial, cultural, and sexual identities. In a different way, Marchetti 2000 points out that the film The Wedding Banquet shows Lee’s ability to integrate Chinese film and Asian American film culture. In examining Lee’s roots in Taiwan New Cinema, Dilley 2007 is a full-length study of Lee’s works from the beginning of his career. In a different way, Chiang 2012 questions the ideological constructions of racial and ethnic identity, such as Chineseness, and develops an account of cultural ambivalence through Ang Lee’s films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution. Instead of cultural ambivalence, Szeto 2015 suggests that Lee’s experience as a political minority has generated his cosmopolitical intervention in transnational cinema. Scholars across the international spectrum have shown extensive interest in Ang Lee. Tesson, et al. 2001 places Ang Lee’s film works within the historical context and presence of Asian film talents (actors, directors, and producers) in the Hollywood cinema. Pekler and Ungerböck 2009 discusses Ang Lee’s films based on thematic and aesthetic criteria. Arp, et al. 2013 is a volume of collected essays that draws from both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions to examine the director’s works.

  • Arp, Robert, Adam Barkman, and James McRae, eds. The Philosophy of Ang Lee. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book is divided into two sections. The first focuses on Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist themes in Lee’s films; the second examines Western philosophies in his works. Lee negotiates all of these traditions, deliberately selecting from each in order to address key issues.

  • Chiang, Chih-Yun. Theorizing Ambivalence in Ang Lee’s Transnational Cinema. New York: Peter Lang, 2012.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-0828-0E-mail Citation »

    Chiang develops an account of cultural ambivalence in Lee’s films in order to challenge any notion of cultural identity as static, state-centered, or ideologically determined. The author reveals how transnational cinema can function as a crucial site of cultural performance and contestation.

  • Dilley, Whitney Crothers. The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen. London and New York: Wallflower, 2007.

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    This is a full-length study of Lee’s works. By looking at Lee’s career, Dilley positions the filmmaker’s work with a focus on the roots of the Taiwan New Cinema movement, as well as the larger context of world cinema.

  • Ma, Sheng-mei. “Ang Lee’s Domestic Tragicomedy: Immigrant Nostalgia, Exotic/Ethnic Tour, Global Market.” Journal of Popular Culture 30.1 (Summer 1996): 191–201.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1996.00191.xE-mail Citation »

    Ma discusses Pushing Hands, Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman as domestic tragicomedies that were produced with joint Western and Taiwanese crews and were conceived with a global audience in mind. Lee’s “immigrant subjectivity” breaks the “nationalist and non-nationalist” barriers in racial, cultural, and sexual identities.

  • Marchetti, Gina. “The Wedding Banquet: Global Chinese Cinema and the Asian American Experience.” In Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Edited by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu, 275–298. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Marchetti points out that it is impossible to categorize Lee because he appeals to a “more globalized audience” and makes “Americanized Chinese films” as well as “foreign, art house” American films. The Wedding Banquet, in particular, shows Lee’s ability to integrate Chinese film and Asian American film culture.

  • Pekler, Michael, and Andreas Ungerböck. Ang Lee und seine Filme. Marburg, Germany: Schüren, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    The book discusses Ang Lee’s film work based on thematic and aesthetic criteria. The authors look at issues such as the clash of tradition and modernity and cinematic themes of love, freedom, and human existence in his films.

  • Szeto, Kin-Yan. “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi: A Cosmopolitical Perspective.” In American and Chinese-Language Cinemas: Examining Cultural Flows. Edited by Lisa Funnell and Man-Fung Yip, 53–67. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    In examining Life of Pi, Szeto investigates how Lee explores the motifs of compassion, doubt, and illusion through film narrative, cinematography, spectacle, and cross-cultural ideological engagements. Tackling Lee’s unique experience as a political minority, Szeto demonstrates his critical cosmopolitical perspectives as a second-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Director.

  • Tesson, Charles, Claudine Paquot, and Roger Garcia, eds. L’Asie à Hollywood. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection includes chapters that look at the presence of Asian film talents in the Hollywood cinema and the influence of Asian cinema on American film aesthetics. It discusses the immigration of Hong Kong/Chinese filmmakers, actors, and producers to Hollywood since the 1990s and highlights how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon successfully revives the Chinese martial arts cinema.

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