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Ang Lee, a pioneer filmmaker in search of renewal

Publication date: 19/07/21


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi… The work of Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, is rich and eclectic. In her book: Ang Lee, Taïwan – Hollywood, une odyssée cinématographique, which was released on 10 June 2021, Nathalie Bittinger, a lecturer in film studies and member of the Approches contemporaines de la création et de la réflexion artistiques (ACCRA) laboratory, looks back at his filmmaking, which has not ceased to evolve and reinvent itself over the decades.

Ang Lee is an atypical but crucial figure, a trailblazer of the cultural and aesthetic fusions of East and West, explains Nathalie Bittinger, who decided to devote a book to the Taiwanese filmmaker and émigré to the United States, because he remains relatively less studied in France.

He’s a chameleon-like director, his eclectic filmography is punctuated by shifts and changes in style. These changes are reflected in the chronological structure of the book, which is divided into four parts, examining the thematic and aesthetic cornerstones of his work: the meeting of East and West, the adaptation of great western novels (Sense and Sensibility), international recognition in various genres (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and his passion for technological revolutions (Life of Pi, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Ang Lee started out in the world of independent cinema before alternating between introspective films and big Hollywood productions. He introduced Chinese martial arts films to a worldwide audience.

He is the product of a complex political history. His parents fled persecution in Mao Tse-tung’s China for Taiwan, following the slaughter of both families. Fragments of these ghosts from the past can be found in his first trilogy. It depicts the complex relationship between a Chinese patriarch, attached to the Confucian tradition, and a younger generation that either emigrated to the United States or is attracted by western modernity.

His father was a fervent defender of the classical arts, and references to painting, calligraphy and Chinese philosophy, intertwined with western codes, can be found in the filmmaker’s movies.

First kiss in Taiwanese cinema between two men

Ang Lee has never stopped exploring the lives of characters on the fringes of society: women dependent on marrying well in 19th-century patriarchal England, cowboys confronting homophobia in Brokeback Mountain, young people cast into the turmoil of war (Ride with the Devil, Lust, Caution). With The Wedding Banquet in 1993, he was also the first to film a kiss between two men in Taiwanese cinema.

His main theme is the repression of feelings and of individuals trapped in moral, social or political shackles. The Taiwanese filmmaker examines how they attempt to free themselves and discover their own individuality. This is reflected in his direction: The framing often restricts the characters until their bodies break free and burst into vast open spaces.

Ang Lee is a pioneer in terms of financing methods (the international coproduction of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000) and technological experimentation. From Life of Pi onwards he revived the use of 3D, increased the frame rate and invented credible computer-generated creatures. He wanted to use these special effects to achieve more immersion, realism and emotion, for example, in the film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about the post-traumatic stress of a young Iraq-war veteran. He’s never where you expect him to be, he transcends all categories, genres and aesthetics, concludes the researcher.

Zoé Fournier


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