It's hard to classify Ang Lee, whose latest movie, Life of Pi, comes out on Wednesday. He's a respected, acclaimed director—he won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain—but he's not in any one niche. He's not a purely commercial filmmaker—his one stab at that was Hulk—but he's also not a challenging, provocative art-house director. Lee resides somewhere in the middle, which doesn't always help his critical reputation. His movies are artful but accessible—you can recommend them to your mom. His films don't inspire a great deal of passion; he doesn't have an oversized persona like a lot of his peers. Truly, he may be our least-cool great director.
Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954, moving to the U.S. in the late '70s to study theater at the University of Illinois. (He had attended art school in Taiwan previously.) He then went to NYU, where he was a classmate of Spike Lee's, even working on one of Spike's student films.
He started making features in the early '90s, and two of them, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. Both movies were praised for being charming, thoughtful, kindhearted comedy-dramas—in other words, the type of well-made, thoroughly inoffensive movie that tends to do well in the Best Foreign Language category. Where other filmmakers launch onto the scene with distinct styles or worldviews, trying to light up the screen with some personal vision, Lee from the beginning preferred telling sensitive, small-scale stories. He has been imprisoned by his own seeming tastefulness ever since.
His adaptation of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet was funny, elegantly made, and, yes, supremely tasteful. Not surprisingly, it was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. But Lee was still viewed as the guy who made nice films in nice settings in which everything ends up rather nicely: a good, competent filmmaker but not one who could set your eyeballs on fire.
That unfair generalization of his style soon had to be reassessed with his follow-up film. The Ice Storm may still be his very best, an adaptation of the Rick Moody novel about '70s suburban malaise. As before, Lee was focused on dysfunctional families, but he'd never attempted anything as dark as his portrayal of the Hoods and the Carvers, two couples drowning in unhappiness with kids already halfway to crazy. A satire of the sexual revolution and suburban drudgery written by longtime collaborator James Schamus, The Ice Storm was a sharp, painful look at lives slowly falling apart, and its cast (Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes) managed to turn these seemingly miserable characters into oddly touching and relatable people. Plus, it's really, really funny: For all its chamber-piece trappings, it's often witheringly sarcastic—all the more so because Lee always prefers to keep his distance from his characters, observing them from a thoughtful, compassionate remove. Two years later, American Beauty would win a slew of Oscars for doing essentially the same thing, but The Ice Storm (which received zero nominates) remains the better film.
From there, Lee kept trying new things. He made a Western, Ride With the Devil, which was a commercial disappointment and received only so-so reviews. Still, it demonstrated again that Lee didn't just want to be the guy who made polite comedies. And then he went on to do Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a terrific martial-arts film and a rare foreign-language film to get nominated for Best Picture. Again, it worked in a vein that he'd never tried before, and while it was a huge hit and garnered Lee the best reviews of his career, there were still those grumblings that Lee was too "nice" to do justice to a film like this.
That attitude was summed up by Amy Taubin, who wrote in The Village Voice that the "[s]tudiously middlebrow" movie was "the Masterpiece Theater version of a wu xia (martial chivalry) movie; instead of punchy pop poetry, it gives us smoothly flowing prose—so smooth it borders on the soporific." This has always been Lee's problem in the eyes of some critics and filmgoers: He takes a respectful outsider's approach to his material. Crouching Tiger was beautiful and lyrical, but it's also a movie that probably plays better with those who weren't raised on martial-arts films. Lee has always been an intelligent dabbler, a guy who's curious about all kinds of genres but is either too restrained or too tasteful to dive into them with the sort of rampaging fan-boy passion that you see from a Tarantino. Consequently, he gets accused of being middlebrow, an argument that's only strengthened when his movies are big hits.
The danger in the dabbler's approach came through even more clearly in his next film, Hulk, a comic-book movie that angered a lot of comic-book-movie fans because it didn't feel like your typical comic-book movie. "For a filmmaker, it's a rare chance to do a personal film on a big canvass," he said at the time, and perhaps that was the problem: This was before Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, which took seriously this idea of really investing in a superhero's back story. Hulk had its problems, but it was a genuine attempt to do something different. If anything, it was a little ahead of its time. Still, Hulk angered comic-book die-hards who felt that Lee didn't have enough of an appreciation of the Incredible Hulk to be allowed to make a movie about him.
So, after you've made your divisive superhero movie, the obvious next step is a love story about gay cowboys, right?
Brokeback Mountain won him an Oscar (and famously lost Best Picture to Crash), and it's a generally beloved movie. And like with The Ice Storm, he figured out how to make an affecting drama that was also incredibly funny. (People forget this about Brokeback Mountain, but one of the reasons why the love story works so well is that Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger have such a warm, jokey rapport with each other.) It's a heartbreaking, beautiful movie, but that still didn't keep some from complaining. "[T]his is the kind of tasteful tearjerker that's often overrated and smothered with prizes for flattering our tolerance and sensitivity," wrote critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. "Lee focuses on the men's wasted lives and the heartbreak of their spouses and other relatives, but the movie makes one hanker for the sort of unabashed queer stories found outside the mainstream." That last point was echoed by others, who were irritated that the film was simply too genteel in its depiction of this gay love story, making the relationship practically chaste, as if Lee was as scared of homosexuality as the bigots are. It's an unfair knock, but it fed into Lee's perceived liability as a too-restrained filmmaker.
In the end, though, his critics always seem to be looking for a different type of movie than Lee wants to deliver. He focuses on story more than any particular style or visual trademark, and his films often have a preciseness about them that can underline the emotions when it works (like in Brokeback Mountain) but leave their impact a bit muted when it doesn't quite work (like in Lust, Caution). Fimmakers in general tend to be looked at as larger-than-life figures, but Lee doesn't conduct himself that way. He's not one for the outlandish pull-quote. He doesn't make one type of movie or have one overriding thematic obsession that links his movies. He just moves on to whatever interests him next, bouncing from the steamy period thriller Lust, Caution to the jovial period comedy Taking Woodstock.
And now he's arrived at Life of Pi, an adaptation of the Yann Martel novel. What it is has to do with his earlier films, I couldn't tell you, but once again it's a smart, resonant film that sneaks up on you. And in case you're one of those who complain that he's too tasteful a filmmaker, he has a couple sequences in here that are as harrowing as anything in recent memory. Still, it's a movie for a wide audience, like all his films. Lee is still uncool and still unhip and still serenely unconcerned with the lustier wishes of his critics. So long as the movies are good, what does it matter?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.