You probably recognize his name from one of his many Oscar nominated films: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain” or last year’s “Life of Pi.” A director with a love of melodrama, Ang Lee frequently focuses his stories on characters with relationship problems against the backdrop of societal antagonists.
Bad guys don’t always have a face in his films, but it’s the heroes’ relationships that ultimately decide their endings. This fresh retrospective (Oct. 25-28) of his work at the Harvard Film Archive will revisit the Ang Lee of yesteryear as well as two underrated entries, “Ride with the Devil” and “Lust, Caution,” to retrace the director’s fondness for connectivity.
In “Lust, Caution” (Friday) a young student, Wang Jiazhi (Wei Tang), is swept up by political frenzy to fight against Japanese occupation in Shanghai during WWII. She’s talked into seducing an important traitor, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), but the consequences of her deception affect them both. Playing with the idea that the heart and mind may have different agendas, Lee makes Jiazhi’s intentions ambiguous to both his audience and the other characters.
What makes the film disturbing is the physical and sexual abuse Yee puts Chi through to determine whether or not she’s a spy. The film was censored in China and slapped with an NC-17 in the US for its graphic depictions of assault, but this is not unknown territory for Lee. The predecessor to “Lust, Caution” was “Brokeback Mountain,” which was met with angry op-eds and boycotts in America for its homosexual sex scenes. Lee is frank with these scenes, painful or pleasurable, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
“The Ice Storm” (Sunday) is more of a straight-laced historical melodrama about two middle-class families in Connecticut during the early ‘70s. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is carrying on an affair with Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) as Elena Hood (Joan Allen) searches for a deeper spiritual life, and Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) is traveling frequently for work. And that’s just the adult drama. The couples’ children are also discovering their sexuality, and it’s no coincidence that they all stumble in their relationships with little regard for their partners.
Lee is careful to draw upon the human flaws of his characters without making them seem like caricatures. “The Ice Storm” followed the success of “Sense and Sensibility” and can be marked as part of Lee’s big break into Hollywood-unsurprising considering the “Ice Storm” cast, In addition to those mentioned above the film starred Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes.
Ang Lee will open the Boston Asian American Film Festival Thursday night with a sold out screening of “Wedding Banquet” at the Brattle. Among the other BAAFF offerings are "So... Are You Chinese? A Story from the Boston Busing Crisis" at the Paramount Center Sunday afternoon directed by ARTery contributor Yvonne Ng.
The following night, Lee will introduce the controversial “Lust, Caution” at the Harvard Film Archive. The HFA will continue to show his earlier works, including his student thesis film, throughout the weekend.
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Boston. You can usually find her outside any of the area’s movie theaters excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter @mcastimovies.
This program aired on October 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.