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Ang Lee with James Schamus: East Meets Western

“Let’s jump from genre to genre and be filmmakers and see what we can make of these gifts; whether from Hong Kong or Hollywood, these genres are now so often ossified relics. [We need to] go back in there and shake ’em up.”
–James Schamus, on Ang Lee in indieWIRE

In the early 1990s, Taiwan-born aspiring director Ang Lee connected with James Schamus, founder of upstart company Good Machine in New York, and a long creative collaboration was sparked. Lee directed, Schamus produced, and both wrote. Their first three films—Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman—all featured Sihung Lung as a Taiwanese patriarch confronting a changing world, and formed what Lee has jokingly referred to as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy. They became international hits that revealed universal moments of intergenerational misunderstanding mixed with equal measures pathos and comedy.

In a move that rocked Hollywood, Lee’s next picture was the 18th-century English period piece Sense and Sensibility. The rapturous yet elegant Jane Austen adaptation gained the filmmaker wide recognition for his radical shift in style and perspective. Lee and Schamus continued to defy expectations. Their next foray, The Ice Storm, was situated in the decidedly different setting of Watergate-era suburban America. Then, just as Lee was becoming known as a director of gently satiric comedy-of-manners family dramas, he again shifted gears with the sprawling Civil War epic Ride with the Devil. Lee returned to his roots in grand style with a high-action historical epic that debuted at Cannes to thundering ovation. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon swept the 2000 Oscar nominations and became the highest grossing foreignlanguage film ever released in the United States. In another departure, the 2003 comic-book reinvention The Hulk featured Freudian undertones offset by eye-popping effects. True to form, Lee and Schamus’ latest collaboration, Brokeback Mountain, which won the 2005 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award for best film, again plumbs new territory in its tale of the complex, passionate relationship between two young cowboys.

Although the settings of Lee and Schamus’ works vary greatly, this retrospective reveals the connections: an emphasis on social customs; cross-generational conflict; the significance of the unspoken. Unquestionably, their films share an artistry, an attentiveness to personal and minute period details, a light comedic touch, and an infusion of warmth, wisdom, and humanism. But for all of these similarities, diversity is what makes Lee’s oeuvre particularly remarkable, and underscores a truly amazing filmic range that is nothing short of extraordinary.