Lee comes home to Mill Valley fest

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SAN RAFAEL, California -- The tribute to filmmaker Ang Lee at the Mill Valley Film Festival Friday evening was something of a homecoming for the Oscar winning director of "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." When Lee brought out his first film, "Pushing Hands," in 1992, Mill Valley "was the only place in the world that would show my film," Lee told the audience. "Even Sundance turned it down."

Then again, in 1997, Mill Valley screened his "The Ice Storm" when he was still a virtually unknown director. When he finally returned to Marin County several years later to live for the better part of a year while doing special visual effects at ILM for "The Hulk," he was world famous, having made the most successful Chineseā€“language film ever with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Lee's latest film, "Lust, Caution," an intense psycho-sexual drama set in Japanese-occupied China during World War II -- which has opened to significant boxoffice in Asia, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong, but divided Western critics so far -- opened the festival the night before, kicking off Mill Valley's 30th anniversary celebration.

So his love of the area and of its festival, one of the key regional festivals in the country, was unmistakable, as was the emotional response to his work by a packed house.

Between film clips from his 10 feature films, Lee took the audience through the cultural and cinematic education of a Taiwanese man who has become a major international moviemaker.

Lee spent the first 23 years of his life in his native country, including college and military service. "I was culturally rooted and I didn't speak English," he noted. "I didn't learn to speak English until after 'Sense and Sensibility." I felt sorry for the actors I had to direct."

His initial love affair was with the theater, not film. Standing on stage, facing an audience for the first time, an experience he re-creates in "Lust, Caution," thrilled him. There was also, he pointed out, no filmmaking tradition in Taiwan at the time.

Coming to New York and not knowing English well, he knew he could not act so he moved into directing. In delving into Western stage drama, he had to break with his own cultural biases.

"Eastern tradition in drama is the search for harmony," he explained. "Western tradition is the search for conflict, the total opposite of how I was brought up."

Ultimately, Lee found theater to be too focused on the actor, not the director, so he switched to studying film at New York University.

"As soon as I touched film, I knew I had found my thing," he said. "If you don't speak English and can direct 'Sense and Sensibility,' then anything is possible!"

It took six years before he made his first film, a period of his life he admits was "depressing." Two things changed this: He met James Shamus, who has worked as a writer or producer or even his "entourage" on every project since. Lee also won both first and second place in a screenwriting contest in Taiwan so he used the prize money to make "Pushing Hands."

His first three films, "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," were all serio-comic family dramas set within the Chinese-American community in New York.

"Now I'm making all these tragedies," he joked. "I don't know what happened to me."

In each of these films, "I separated myself into the various parts. The characters were all me," he said. "It is all close to my own family life." Even his own 6-year-old son played the boy in "Pushing Hands."

While Lee is not a religious man, he said, "Buddhism seems to make the most sense to me. I don't practice it, but I meditate and use its thinking a lot." However, he sees a lot of Christianity in his work: "'Brokeback Mountain' represents the loss of Paradise," he explained. "Western drama has a lot to do with the loss of Eden."

"Sense and Sensibility," his fourth film, marked the first time he became a "Chinese director," he said. Before, with mostly Chinese actors, his only concern was the "best way to show the actors." But when communication was difficult with an all-English cast -- "young Kate Winslett was the only person I could relate to" -- he resorted to a more cinematic means of expression.

"That film was the first time I used a wide shots and a composed frame," he said. "I didn't know how to talk to the actors. I was shy. So I used framing and images to act for the actors. This way I used cinema to tell the story; I used space and distance."

As to why producer Lindsay Doran selected someone who spoke poor English to shoot a Jane Austen story, he said, "My theory is that she could not get a proper English director. No, I'm not joking. I think they were sick and tired of [English period pieces].

"She told me one hot British director said the worst thing to do is hire an English director. She also told me of all the people she interviewed, I was the only one who after reading the script talked about the humor. One German director said, 'What humor?'"

Lee got a solid laugh when moments later he insisted that "making a movie about repressed English people is actually quite easy for a Chinese director."

While working on "Crouching Tiger" (2000), following ""The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil," two films that were not very successful, he worried that he might be headed for a third failure, a thing he had been warned to avoid at all cost in any filmmaking career.

"The genre of martial arts is like pulp fiction," he said. "It is not meant to be art. Like chocolate and cheese, you shouldn't mix them."

His worries proved to be in vain.

Of his two war films, "Ride with the Devil"(about the American Civil War) and "Lust, Caution," Lee noted that he is interested not so much in battle scenes as the "war inside human beings." Where love should be in "Lust, "Caution," instead sado-masochism reigns. His concern lies in "good people's bad ideas." His villain, played by Tony Leung, could just as easily be a good man, but war's cruelty has corrupted his soul.

Of filmmaking in general, Lee noted that he is "hands-on with everything from writing the script to the sound mixing and the timing, getting the colors right. I love the technical side of moviemaking. I cannot be a producer, someone who oversees things. I have to be involved in every detail."
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