Ranking the Ang Lee Films

Need to Watch: Ride with the DevilLust/CautionTaking Woodstock, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, 


Ang Lee is a pretty interesting filmmaker for a few reasons. He followed the classic late eighties/early nineties path of making small indie movies before increasingly being able to make bigger and bigger movies. On the surface, many of his films seem very different, but they are almost always very thematically connected. He has won multiple Best Director Oscars. And perhaps most importantly, his films show that he is one of the very few filmmakers in the world who can consistently make stories outside his comfort zone and manage to capture truth.


9. Life of Pi [2012]

It is rare that a director of a superhero ever makes another movie that feels more condescending to its audience, but Ang Lee managed to pull that off here. On one hand, Life of Pi feels like a film that is inherently designed for children so maybe I just should not care about it (or even never watched it in the first place). There is just really nothing to latch onto here. Its look is bland, and the themes it explores are barely even surface level deep. Ang Lee committed the rare sin (for him) of making an exceptionally uninteresting film.


8. Gemini Man [2019]

Gemini Man was an interesting blockbuster attempt (something to be grateful for, I suppose, in this day and age), but there will always be one decision that I will never understand. If you are going to go through the trouble of doing a CGI Will Smith where you get a young Will Smith, why oh why would you not do a young Will Smith star persona characterization? Like, what is the point of doing a young and mopey-ish impersonation of Will Smith? Why not capitalize on the star persona of his younger self? It just does not make any sense, and it hampered a film that needed all the help it could get.


7. Hulk [2003]

In the first decade of the 2000s, many, if not most, of the superhero projects were given to high quality filmmakers. It was much weirder for a superhero project to fall into the hands of a total hack in fact.  For the Hulk, a studio gave perhaps its highest profile un-filmable superhero to perhaps the greatest director to ever get a chance at one of these things. This movie is from a time when an auteur got to make a superhero film that felt like it was not for children.

The Hulk and Bruce Banner are really not the dynamic characters that lend themselves to being the focus of feature film. Banner is kind of just boring. There are only so many times you can see Hulk smash before it ceases to be exciting. And then the standard supporting characters of Betty Ross and Thunderbolt really do not set the world on fire.

So, what’s a great filmmaker like Ang Lee to do? He focuses on what interests him: intergenerational conflict and characters dealing with a change in their status quo. What he does not do is make an easily digestible film that caters to the audience in any way. What we are left with is a film that defies any consumer-based way of assessing films. You have an attempt at art that is truly interesting if not fully successful by any stretch of the imagination. I am both grateful to go back and watch a film like this while also not really being too excited to think about it or ever watch it again.


6. Sense and Sensibility [1995]

On the surface, much like Hulk, a Jane Austin adaptation seems kind of a bizarre choice for Ang Lee. But just by examining the story even on the surface, you can see what would draw him to the story.

Once again, the major characters of this film are going through great change. The Dashwood daughters are going (upon the death of their father) from being extremely money to having relatively little money in comparison. While the family does not suddenly go poor, they do lose all of their stature and become objects of pity.

How do you grapple with your life upending? That question is explored through the comparison of the two older Dashwood sisters played by Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Through the two characters, we see how the power of delusion on us as people. In both big and small ways, we delude ourselves to cope, and Sense and Sensibility shows the toll that takes on us.


5. Pushing Hands [1991]

When I saw Ang Lee in person discuss this film, Lee talked about how a running idea in his films is how people respond to change or a shift in the status quo in some kind. His debut film explores that idea beautifully. Sihung Lung’s Mr. Chu has finally retired from his job in his homeland China and is attempting to live with his son and white wife in the United States.

It does not go well (because the wife is HORRID). Chu tries to find various ways to make something of his new life and come to some sense of peace or “nothingness.” Chu’s search for “nothingness” is spellbinding from beginning to end. While Lee would eventually develop a greater set of visual skills, his sense of humanity and the eternal struggle people go through was locked in from the jump. A great film in its own right and simply one of the best debut films ever.


4. Eat Drink Man Woman [1994]

The Ang Lee/Sihung Lung partnership is one of the most unsung great director/actor combinations to ever exist. Eat Drink completed their initial trilogy and is a beautiful end to Sihung Lung confronting massive changes to the status quo all around him.

Here, Sihung is an older widow with three adult daughters who are all at turning points in their lives. The movie just captures the feeling of being in this lowkey chaotic family that is trying to make their way in the world while simultaneously overcoming their own hangups, insecurities, and trauma.

Without realizing it, all the characters find some tiny ways of not just reacting to the change around them but also actively trying to grow or make improvements in their lives. It is really quite touching and never schlocky.


3. The Wedding Banquet [1993]

The Wedding Banquet feels like a remarkable film to have come out in 1993. Like the vast majority of Lee’s films, his characters are confronting a change in their status quo.

Wai is living with his white boyfriend, Simon. Wei stuck living in a shitty apartment due to her slumlord (Wai). Wai’s parents back in Taiwan are desperate for him to get married and have a child. Wei is on the verge of being deported. A solution comes to Simon: Wai and Wei will have a green card marriage that solves all of their problems. What could go wrong?

The next third of the film is then Wei, Wai, and Simon struggling to endure the sudden and drastic changes to their lives as they put on a show for Wai’s parents, including a wedding ceremony and the titular wedding banquet. The last third of the film is about Wai’s mother and father getting used to the truth of the situation.

Both of those dynamics reveal much of the way we confront change. We push each other away. We run away. We pretend the changes are not happening. We “protect” loved ones by keeping information from them. Several moments towards the end, there are moments when all five characters know exactly what the hell is going on but they all are convinced that they should not talk about it and keep up the delusion.

And as always, Lee delivers this story with love and empathy for his characters. No one is a prop. No one is an object. A truly great second film for Lee.


2. Brokeback Mountain [2005]

If you were not alive when this film came out, you might not be able to appreciate just how much of “a thing” this one was. It was a genuine phenomenon, and it seemed like everyone had seen it.

While a piece of art going “viral” for wont of a better term should often lead to skepticism regarding how good it actually is, Brokeback managed to be a truly rare thing. The film was a genuinely great piece of art.

The key to the film is that every speaking character is constructed with a great deal of empathy and always genuinely feels like a real human being who is experiencing the world and the events of the film. Despite being centered around Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, all throughout the film you are continuously struck by just how so many characters hook you in and make you understand everything they are feeling.

Lee beautifully captures the pain all these people are experience without ever fetishizing their tragedies. And while it would have been easy for this film at this time to get by focusing just on direct external sources of pain in a story about two “gay cowboys,” the film’s beauty and haunting quality comes from the characters’ internal pain. Heath and Jake’s pain is more obvious (but no less affecting), but what stands out sometimes to me on rewatches is how much sad the other characters are and how they have no skills or tools to deal with what they are feeling. The world has set up this cast of characters to fail in such a way that reveals a very real and horrible truth about this world.


1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [2000]

This movie is so chock full of cool fucking shit. On the surface, it feels like Ang Lee knew he was only ever going to make one martial arts film so he just decided to go all out and make the biggest and baddest one that he could. Like, it’s remarkable how often Ang Lee just decides to throw in another action scene and then not only make it cool and fun to watch but also really have it say something about the character(s) involved. Not to say martial arts films need to be about big ideas or anything, but it is amazing how much Lee is able to really just organically incorporate so many ideas about what it means to be alive in this film. Over two decades later, and I was still just as spellbound as if I was watching it in the theater for the very first time. A beautiful testament to the majesty of cinema!


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