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PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 9:09 pm    Post subject: Man Without a Country


Man Without a Country
China is proud of its Oscar-winning son--in its own way.

Saturday, December 1, 2007 12:01 a.m.

NEW YORK--"I'm like a proud son of China," Taiwan-born director Ang Lee says.

China certainly seems fond of Mr. Lee. His movies, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," have earned him world-wide applause, and his films have won eight Oscars. Mr. Lee's latest film, "Lust, Caution," recently did a stint as No. 1 at the Chinese box office. When the director won an Oscar for his 2005 gay cowboy epic, "Brokeback Mountain," an official mainland newspaper pronounced him "the pride of the Chinese people."

Chinese pride works in mysterious ways. "Brokeback Mountain" was banned in mainland China, and state media censored parts of Mr. Lee's award acceptance speech. "They're very proud of me winning the Oscar. They're just not allowed to show it because of homosexuality," Mr. Lee explains.

"Life is full of contradictions, and they live with that," he says. "Hardly anybody says that we are not proud of you because we cannot show your film, or if we're proud of you we have to overthrow everything that exists. Nobody thinks and acts like that. They look at you and smile with goodwill."

Mr. Lee touches on a larger dilemma faced by foreign businesses struggling with mainland censorship--Google is one well-known example. Is it better to stand on principle and push back against the communist government? Or do you play by Beijing's rules, arguing that this approach will ultimately get more information into China?

"Do I hold a grudge against them because they cannot show 'Brokeback Mountain' publicly?" Mr. Lee asks, with a hint of defiance. "That's just," he laughs, "that's life!" He elaborates, and in doing so weighs in on a much wider debate: "I'm not going to not make a movie there because of that."

I had met Mr. Lee once before, very briefly, after a New York Asia Society screening of "Lust, Caution." Mr. Lee once described himself as shy and socially awkward, and that night, facing a crowd of people clamoring to talk to him, the director did look a bit dazed by the spotlight.
One on one, it's a whole different story. When we meet in a downtown Manhattan office building, the casually dressed Mr. Lee greets me warmly, plops himself down on a couch, and proceeds to fire off bold opinions. He laughs often and speaks in English, with an occasional dash of Mandarin.

Mr. Lee's attitude toward China's ban of "Brokeback Mountain" may seem like nonchalance, but perhaps the director was just biding his time. One could argue that he took an even bigger risk by bringing his new film, "Lust, Caution," into China. For starters, the movie depicts a "disgraceful" slice of national history: World War II-era occupation by the Japanese and in particular, the Chinese who collaborated with them. "The Wang Jingwei regime--the collaborative government--was never allowed to be filmed," Mr. Lee explains.

Mr. Lee's vivid resurrection of this taboo period would be controversial on its own. But the plot, based on a story by Zhang Ailing, might be even more daring. The film, mostly set in 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai, is the tale of a patriotic Chinese student who seduces a Japanese collaborator. The plan is to lure the traitor close--and then have him killed. But after a string of passionate encounters, (the film earned a NC-17 rating in the U.S. but graphic sex scenes were cut from the mainland Chinese version), the young woman finds it tougher to carry out her mission. "In 'Lust, Caution' I put female sexuality against patriotism," Mr. Lee explains. "That's very scary, actually."

Chinese patriotism is not supposed to be negotiable. "To us that's a black-and-white thing," Mr. Lee says. "You sacrifice yourself--how can you let China down?" China's warm embrace of "Lust, Caution" may reveal a growing acknowledgment that love of the motherland can be nuanced. "Now they can at least weigh humanity against some kind of big idea of patriotism," Mr. Lee explains. "I'm not saying patriotism is wrong," he says, but, "humans should go first."

"Lust, Caution" has already taken in over $15 million in China. It apparently did not strike the same chord in the U.S., where the film has received mixed reviews and made roughly $4.3 million since its September release.

Still, the fact that the movie has been so well-received in China--or even that it is still playing--is very encouraging, says Mr. Lee. "It hasn't been taken down . . . there's an outcry, but it's not big enough to take it down, that's very positive to me." Mr. Lee seems to feel that the success of such a controversial film in China could work as a catalyst--for the government to loosen up, the people to broaden their outlook, and more filmmakers to strive for the truth.

Mr. Lee's broader goal is to project images of China's past, even some of the politically incorrect aspects, onto the big screen. "I try to revive what was, and nobody can do it alone." He adds: "If I don't do it now, in five years it's probably gone. Because the people who remember it will die."

"I do believe that life is a continuous thing," Mr. Lee says. "You can't just chop off your history and start anew." China's communists have certainly tried, in particular during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, which included the destruction of historical artifacts. Mr. Lee describes the Cultural Revolution: "I've never seen a culture that hates itself so much."

"You have to come from somewhere," he says. "That's your culture, your backbone, who you are. You cannot give that away. Whether it's in the elite culture or pop culture, you just need to come from somewhere. And the best way to introduce [this] to young people is to make profitable films that relate to the past."

One such film is the Academy Award winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," an inventive martial-arts adventure set in 19th century Qing Dynasty China. The film didn't make much of a splash on the mainland, but in the U.S. at least it was a soaring success. Perhaps Western audiences are just more easily lifted out of their seats by deftly choreographed sword-fighting, flying warriors and elegant bamboo forests. With "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Mr. Lee did more than bring traditional images to the world's screens. With streamlined special effects, he made old-fashioned China look incredibly cool.

Mr. Lee's emphasis on the old China goes back to his upbringing. His parents were from the mainland, but the 1949 communist victory in the Chinese civil war led them to flee to Taiwan, where Mr. Lee was born in 1954. Taiwan did not suffer from the same attempts to demolish Chinese history.

"In Taiwan we carry the torch of the classic Chinese culture, of feudal society, so to speak. We didn't go through Cultural Revolution and communism," Mr. Lee says. "In Hong Kong and Taiwan we're brought up in the old-fashioned way, and China has changed drastically. . . . I still grew up relatively similar to how my father was brought up."

Mr. Lee tells me that growing up in Taiwan influenced his career in other ways as well. He says that in his films, he always takes "the losing side." ("Somebody dies, somebody loses, well, gay cowboys--they're not going to win," he explains.)

You might be wondering what all this has to do with Taiwan. "I grew up in Taiwan, we always lose," Mr. Lee says. He laughs good-naturedly. "Nobody wins anything, that's just how I grew up. We're always on the losing side. My parents get beat by the communists, they escape to Taiwan. Taiwan's a small island, hardly anybody pays attention. Up until the late '80s I still get this: I come here, 'Where are you from?' I say, 'Taiwan.' People say, 'Oh, I love Thai food!' "

Taiwan, of course, also has more serious dilemmas. "You live in fear that communists will take over. . . . China's so big and Taiwan is a small island. . . . We look at America as the big brother, the protector, the good guys. So after the Vietnam War it's very frightening, [America's] . . . in trouble and you feel very insecure. So I think Taiwan needs Americans to be the good guys."

Mr. Lee describes the current mood in Taiwan as "quite depressing." It's "splitting," he says, between more independence-minded people and those who "have a hard time to believe we're not Chinese." Where does Mr. Lee fit in? "At heart, I'm still Chinese. That's how I was brought up. My parents came from China, we're the outsiders." Yet in China, he says, "I think I'm somewhat of a native and a guest at the same time."

Mr. Lee's work is not immune from Taiwan-mainland politics. Such was the case with the Venice International Film Festival a few months back. Taiwan criticized the festival for listing "Lust, Caution" as originating in "Taiwan, China," as opposed to simply "Taiwan."

"I wish the world was like the [John Lennon] song goes: 'Imagine there's no country . . .," Mr. Lee says, laughing. "I like to be in that gray-zone area, where people see me as 'all of the above.' "

Mr. Lee's aversion to being categorized helps explain why, after making a series of successful Chinese-language films such as "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," he plunged into American film--with "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995 and two years later with the chilling suburban drama, "The Ice Storm." Later came the American civil-war story "Ride With the Devil," (1999), followed by a foray into the comic-book genre with "Hulk" in 2003. "I think all my career I'm jumping around," he says. "I like to live in a limbo, a gray area, I think that's life."

Mr. Lee may not want to be seen as a spokesman, or his films as "representative" of a certain culture, but this seems difficult to avoid. He mentions "Eat Drink Man Woman," (1994) which gives ample camera time to a family's sumptuous Sunday feasts: "Probably a big part of the world, their only impression about Taiwan is that movie. They ask me: Do you eat like that every Sunday? It's like, can I use a metaphor?"

"I took on challenge after challenge because I insist on living in a gray area," says Mr. Lee, "and be truthful to life." He pauses, then adds with a soft laugh, "maybe."

Mr. Lee's embrace of the "gray" is what makes his films so powerful. In theaters East and West, his work tests society's black-and-white images of a cowboy, a patriot or even a martial-arts film. "As an artist I think it's important to be brave, to be truthful," he says. And why is it braver to be in a gray area? "Because you challenge the existing, the established," he responds.

"Any establishment is convenient for a while. Then when it's so established, it becomes stiff. And as a rule of life, when something gets stiff, it dies."
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