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Ang Lee, Taiwanese Filmmaker, Three-Time Golden Globe Winner

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954, in Pingtung, a southern agricultural region. He was educated at the National Taiwan University of Arts, the best high school in Taiwan where his father was the principal. He describes himself as a spaced-out kid, never rebellious. He wanted to be an actor but realized that, because of language barriers, it wasn’t a practical goal. Feeling that theater directors were merely failed actors, he decided to become a film director instead.

After he graduated in 1975, he did his mandatory military service in the Chinese navy, and went to the United States to get his BFA in Theater in 1980 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where he met his future wife Jane Lin, also from Taiwan, there studying for her Ph.D.

Lee got his MFA in film production at NYU where he made a short film, Shades of the Lake in 1982, which won Taiwan’s Best Drama Award in Short Film. His thesis film Fine Line (1984) won NYU’s Wasserman Award for Outstanding Direction and was broadcast by PBS.

Unfortunately, he was unemployed for six years after school, becoming a househusband while his wife was the sole breadwinner for the family of four. He wrote several screenplays during this time, two of which he submitted to a competition sponsored by the Taiwanese government where they won first and second place. He was hired to direct one of the winning screenplays, Pushing Hands, his first full-length feature released in 1991. A film about family conflicts, it was a critical and box office success, which put Lee on the map.


Around this time, he got to know James Schamus and Ted Hope whose independent production company Good Machine would produce most of his movies. Schamus, screenwriter and collaborator on many of Lee’s films, said they were “the kings of no-budget filmmaking” in New York.

Lee’s second film, The Wedding Banquet (1993), in which a gay man fakes a marriage to please his parents, became an international art-house hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His third film, 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman, was another critically acclaimed hit. Again, he was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs, as well as Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards. All three of these early films were based on his own screenplays and are known as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy.

His first English-language film was an adaptation of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, although Lee admits he barely spoke English while filming it. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay and urged him to direct even though he was considered a strange choice.

Lee discovered one big difference between directing in Taiwan and in the UK or US. In Taiwan, the director was essentially the dictator, whereas, in the West, it was a much more collaborative process. There are many anecdotes about him giving confusing and rather severe notes to the actors in his films. During an interview with the Hudson Union Society, Alan Rickman said Lee gave him the perplexing note, “Be more subtle, do more.” Hugh Grant, during an interview with BAFTA, said Lee called a scene he and Thompson had just done “boring,” and at the end of her first day of filming, he told Kate Winslet, “Don’t worry, you’ll get better.” David Harbour (on Live with Kelly and Ryan) said Lee told him to “be more handsome.” Luckily, his command of the English language has improved substantially since then.

For Sense & Sensibility, Lee researched the period for six months before production, which started his practice of doing extensive homework on all of his following films. He’s a stickler for the accurate portrayal of society, politics, customs, style, and language in every film he does. He puts together large books with his findings and shares them with actors and other creatives on each film.

Sense & Sensibility was a critical and box office success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle voted him Best Director. Lee says that the success of the film gave him the courage to choose the riskier stories that he was drawn to, even though they seemed like unusual territory for him to tackle. “I want to grow as a filmmaker. To me, this whole career is like a big film school,” he told author Karla Rae Fuller, editor of the book “Ang Lee: Interviews.”

1997’s The Ice Storm was about suburban families and the sexual revolution in the early 70s. 1999’s Civil War drama, Ride with the Devil, was about families being changed by war. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was something Lee had always wanted to do — a martial arts epic set in ancient China. The top-grossing foreign-language film in the United States, it is considered one of his greatest and was an international success, nominated for Academy Awards in ten categories, winning for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hulk (2003) was a big-budget CGI-laden superhero movie that came out before the genre had really started. Lee viewed it as more of a horror movie psychodrama. It was not a success. At this point in his life, he was ready to quit his directing career. His father had just died, and he was at a very low point but wanted to end things with a low-budget intimate movie.

What followed was the gay Western drama Brokeback Mountain (2005) which was critically acclaimed and won Lee best director and best picture awards worldwide, winning Best Director at the Golden Globes and notably becoming the first non-white person to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. It was selected by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.

Next came the fantastical, philosophical Life of Pi (2012) with its stunningly beautiful visual effects. It earned him Best Director at the Golden Globes and eleven Oscar nominations — again, he won Best Director.

Lee is a prolific filmmaker in a uniquely wide range of genres. His 31-year career has been surprisingly varied, but there are some characteristics shared by all of his films. There is a real attention to framing and the visual elements of each film. His films are character-driven, and the story is often advanced through the characters’ emotional journey. Many are focused on family and have themes of alienation, marginalization, and repression. Many of his films, especially the early ones, focused on interactions between modernity and tradition.

Lee lives and works in America and does his post-production in New York. He says that nobody makes movies like America — if you can abide the politics and marketing machine, you won’t find the scale and sophistication of Hollywood anywhere else. He has broken language and cultural barriers, but he has never transferred his citizenship and still considers himself a Taiwanese filmmaker. His traditional upbringing there influenced the way he looks at the world.

Lee has been nominated for eight Golden Globes and has won five times – Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi; and for Best Foreign Language Film for Crouching Tiger and Lust, Caution. He is one of only four directors to win the Cannes Golden Lion twice, and the only director to be awarded Berlin’s Golden Bear twice. He’s won DGAs and BAFTAs and received Taiwan’s Order of Brilliant Star. In 2021, he was awarded the BAFTA Fellowship Lifetime Achievement in Film Award, the highest honor the Academy can bestow.