Ang Lee’s sense and sensibility

Story written by Laura Cacace.


The auditorium at Mamaroneck High School is filling up, the room buzzing in anticipation as one man walks unnoticed down the aisle toward the stage. He sports a puffy blue coat, snow boots and a backpack. Only when he reaches the stage and turns around do I realize who he is — Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee.

His appearance at the high school was hosted by The Center for Continuing Education of Larchmont and Mamaroneck. (Lee and his family have been living in Mamaroneck for a number of years.) “I’m a very spaced-out person,” he says once he’s onstage later in the evening. “My attention span doesn’t last more than one minute, but I’m good at hiding it. I had to pretend I wasn’t dreaming (when I was younger). My mind was always drifting away.”

Lee’s father, the principal of his high school back in Taiwan, had trouble understanding his son, who was shy and could never quite focus on his schoolwork. But Lee knew he was different. His whole family was. His parents moved to Taiwan from China before he was born, rendering themselves and their children “outsiders.” And many of the characters and stories he feels drawn to are the ones where the “outsider” triumphs in some way, big or small.

“In some ways, I feel at home being an outsider,” Lee says. “I have more of a sense of belonging in an imaginary world.” His father didn’t understand his choice to pursue acting when they lived in Taiwan. “Film people” in Taiwanese society were perceived as those who did not behave well, who didn’t conform to social norms. As a high school principal, Lee’s father was all about good behavior. But Lee didn’t let his father’s opinions stop him. After studying acting in Taiwan, he moved to the U.S. in 1978, where he attended the University of Illinois as a theater student.

“I felt that only through pretending I could touch the truth,” Lee says. It was why he wanted to study acting and, ultimately, why he chose film. “I couldn’t be an actor. I couldn’t speak English. So I turned to directing.” That’s how he found himself at New York University, where he received his master’s degree in film production. Fortunately for us, he never looked back.

Lee has since directed a wide range of movies that nonetheless contain a common thread — the clash between the head and the heart. It’s the subject of “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), which won an Oscar for star Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), an Oscar winner in the Best Foreign Language Film category; and the groundbreaking “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), which earned Lee his first Oscar as Best Director. He also won for “Life of Pi” (2012). Other notable films include “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), filmed in Taiwan in Mandarin, and “Hulk” (2003), about Marvel’s troubled green superhero.

Diversity isn’t necessarily something he strives for, though — it just kind of happens. When asked how he selects screenplays to bring to life on-screen, Lee says, “Sometimes, I feel it [the screenplay] selects me. Like I’m a slave. I never really plan on it. I’m looking for things I’m curious about. It’s not necessarily about characters. It’s about elements that speak to me. Like gay cowboys.” He’s quick to correct himself, “They’re sheepherders actually, not cowboys.”

Lee always looks for the interesting, the conflict, the strange, the things people might shy away from at first glance. The elements — a poignant love story that just happens to be between two men, a young boy who’s lost everything, but finds comfort in the presence of a tiger that may not be a tiger at all, a man who transforms into a big, green monster when he gets angry — though perhaps unexpected, are what bring out emotions somewhere deep inside, and that’s what compels Lee the most.

“I think of myself as a vessel. I have a lot of curiosities with the world, with myself and with my actors and I put them all together. When I see people react to that, I don’t feel so lonely.”

For Lee, filmmaking isn’t just about putting out a product or receiving accolades. It’s how he makes sense of the world around him. “I don’t feel like I’ve worked one day,” he says with a smile. “I’m very fortunate.”

Someone in the audience asks, “Are there any movies you wish you had made?”

“No,” he says quickly, and everyone claps. He’s laughing now. “Do I regret my own life?” he asks, and it isn’t clear whether he’s asking this of the audience or himself, but his answer is still the same, “No.”

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