Life of Lee teaches us to dream bigger
For many years, ethnic Chinese filmmakers in the so-called "Greater China Circle", which includes such regions as Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and, in the opinion of some, even the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, have been resigned to second-class-citizen status in the motion picture industry. The best thing the more enterprising ones among them could hope for, aside from box-office success, was a somewhat condescending nickname the "Akira Kurosawa" of Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or Macau, or whatever the provenance of the filmmaker in question may be.Now, after Ang Lee's success in Cannes and Hollywood with his classics, including his latest, "Life Of Pi", the spell has been broken. Maybe a future successful movie director will be referred to as the "Ang Lee of such and such a place".
Not that Lee's Chinese predecessors, most notably the directors among them, were untalented, ill-trained or inexperienced, but they were often confined by their own survival instincts and, even more importantly, the dictates, commercial interests and whims of the investors or whoever held the purse strings. For this reason, the film industry in these regions has, over the years, turned out many box-office hits that are nothing but, well, box-office hits, which very often feature sex and violence or vulgar comic routines, ingredients that please a lot of movie-goers and sell a lot of tickets. A certain director is so well known for his shoot-out scenes that sellers of blank ammo rounds are full of anticipation whenever he embarks on a new production.
Thought-provoking works, said to be the typical "box office poison", have been few and far between. Simply put, in this corner of the world, "artistic success", "big dreams" and "dreamers", are words to be forgotten. And then for both commercial and cultural reasons, our filmmakers quite often dwell within the safe confines of their own cultural traditions, which has led to a proliferation of works that are not readily understandable, and not even commercially viable beyond national borders. For many of them, ethnocentricity, maybe the narrower the better, is a winning formula.
Ang Lee, on the other hand, does dream and he dreams big, although his "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" should convince sceptics of his ability to make both critically acclaimed and commercially successful pictures. He remained steadfastly committed to the art form even in adversity, such as when he was a stay-home husband living off the income of his working wife in New York during a dry spell.
Even more remarkable is his open-minded embrace of other cultures and traditions and themes that have universal significance. Casting not the usual suspects but a virtually unknown person from another culture in a leading role in a major production is, to say the least, something quite unthinkable in the local film industry, in which you not only hire the familiar faces, but sometimes have to hire their friends, too.
US First Lady Michelle Obama may not have been singling out Lee for praise when she announced the best picture category in a surprise appearance live from the White House at last Sunday's Academy Awards, but what she said gives food for thought, especially in light of Lee's successful career.
"Every day through engagement in the arts, our children learn to open their imaginations, to dream just a little bigger, and to strive every day to reach those dreams," she said.
Maybe we need more dreamers whose dreams go beyond their immediate wellbeing than we need another Ang Lee. Let's work on it.