Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Philosophy of Ang Lee

The Philosophy of Ang Lee

Robert Arp
Adam Barkman
James McRae
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Ang Lee
    Book Description:

    Ang Lee (b. 1954) has emerged as one of cinema's most versatile, critically acclaimed, and popular directors. Known for his ability to transcend cultural and stylistic boundaries, Lee has built a diverse oeuvre that includes films about culture clashes and globalization (Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994, and The Wedding Banquet, 1993), a period drama (Sense and Sensibility, 1995), a martial arts epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), a comic book action movie (Hulk, 2003), and an American western (Brokeback Mountain, 2005).

    The Philosophy of Ang Lee draws from both Eastern and Western philosophical traditions to examine the director's works. The first section focuses on Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist themes in his Chinese-language films, and the second examines Western philosophies in his English-language films; but the volume ultimately explores how Lee negotiates all of these traditions, strategically selecting from each in order to creatively address key issues. With interest in this filmmaker and his work increasing around the release of his 3-D magical adventure The Life of Pi (2012), The Philosophy of Ang Lee serves as a timely investigation of the groundbreaking auteur and the many complex philosophical themes that he explores through the medium of motion pictures.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4170-1
    Subjects: Philosophy, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)
    Robert Arp, Adam Barkman and James McRae

    “Hi, I’m Ang Lee, and if I don’t make movies I’m going to die.”¹ Ang Lee used these words to introduce himself to the production company, Good Machine, which would go on to fund his 1992 film,Pushing Hands.Lee is one of the most talented and diverse directors in world cinema. He is known for his ability to make provocative and original films on virtually any topic: Victorian romances, kung fu epics, superhero action films, tragedies about forbidden relationships. Lee has produced eleven feature-length films that have garnered critical acclaim and earned him multiple Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and...

  4. Part 1: The Eastern Philosophy of Ang Lee

    • Conquering the Self: Daoism, Confucianism, and the Price of Freedom in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
      (pp. 19-40)
      James McRae

      There is a famous Chinese painting entitledThe Three Vinegar Tastersthat depicts the founders of China’s three great philosophical systems—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism— sampling a vat of vinegar. Confucius and the Buddha find it distasteful, but the Daoist Laozi considers the vinegar to be sweet. Although this image is primarily meant to show the importance of all three traditions for Chinese culture, it is also interpreted as a Daoist critique of the other two systems, particularly Confucianism. Confucius believes that human nature is sour and must be corrected through education, rules, and social norms, but Laozi thinks that...

    • What Do You Know of My Heart? The Role of Sense and Sensibility in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
      (pp. 41-63)
      Renée Köhler-Ryan and Sydney Palmer

      When Ang Lee asked Michelle Yeoh to play one of the lead roles inCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000), he described it to her as “Sense and Sensibilitywith martial arts.” However, this too glibly states the relationship between the two films. Comparisons and contrasts between them reveal that each complements the other, rendering a dynamic conceptual framework for Lee’s understanding of sense and of sensibility. Lee has a rich appreciation of human subjectivity, in which the person’s role within a society defined by codes and norms can, but need not completely, conflict with his or her emotionally defined relationships...

    • The Confucian Cowboy Aesthetic
      (pp. 64-76)
      Michael Thompson

      Early in the nineteenth century, French emissary and political thinker Alexis de Toqueville (1805–1859) observed a tendency among Americans, especially those of the new Western states, toward an isolation and individualism wherein its members had little or no knowledge of the history of their neighbors and little or no social interactions with those nearest them.¹ With the Louisiana Purchase and manifest destiny, the character of the settlers in these new territories was one of rugged individualism and was marked by an independence and lack of sociability with the other few inhabitants of the lands.² Cowboys are presented as the...

    • East Meets Western: The Eastern Philosophy of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain
      (pp. 77-94)
      Jeff Bush

      Ang Lee’s 2005 film,Brokeback Mountain,is an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 novella about the intense connection between two cowboys who first meet while sheepherding on a mountain in Wyoming in 1963. Both the film and the novella emphasize the anfractuous nature of the cowboys’ emotional and sexual relationship over the next twenty years as they struggle against society’s disapproval and strive to maintain the intensity of their initial meeting. Here, I argue that Lee’s film connects the genre of the western with Eastern philosophy, which helps us to view homosexuality in a new way. First, I discuss the...

    • Landscape and Gender in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain
      (pp. 95-120)
      Misty Jameson and Patricia Brace

      In his 1757 work,A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,English philosopher Edmund Burke discusses these two concepts as they relate to human perceptions of landscape aesthetics in their most basic form: first, the sublime, which causes terror in the observer, and second, the beautiful, which causes pleasure. Later, William Gilpin would temper these two notions with his idea of the picturesque, which mitigates these extremes, mixing the sublime with the beautiful. The picturesque focuses on freedom and lack of control in the outdoors—wild, broken trees; storms; Gothic ruins in disrepair...

    • Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Desires, Rituals, and the Search for Harmony in Eat Drink Man Woman
      (pp. 121-140)
      Carl J. Dull

      One of the reasonsEat Drink Man Woman(1994) is such an exquisite film is because it seamlessly blends sumptuous spreads of traditional Chinese cuisine with a rich mixture of characters, passions, and conflict. The displays of culinary expertise are filmed with the same expert subtlety and precision given to the emotional trials of the Chu household, making the film itself a cinematic dish that is richly rewarding and worth revisiting numerous times to fully appreciate its complexity and variety. In a family with unique personalities and a complicated history, the fragile status quo is upset by new developments and...

    • Paternalism, Virtue Ethics, and Ang Lee: Does Father Really Know Best?
      (pp. 141-150)
      Ronda Lee Roberts

      In the Father Knows Best trilogy—composed of the filmsPushing Hands(1992),The Wedding Banquet(1993), andEat Drink Man Woman(1994)—Ang Lee explores the role of paternalism in modern society. All of the characters in these films face the tension between traditional values and the modern, fast-paced lifestyle that drives American life. The clash between the two experiences causes friction when it comes to decision-making practices. The individual experiencing the clash then needs to determine whether or not he or she will accept the modern choices or adhere to the traditional culture. It is difficult to illustrate...

    • Lust, Caution: A Case for Perception, Unimpeded
      (pp. 151-162)
      Basileios Kroustallis

      When British film critic Peter Bradshaw reviewed Ang Lee’s 2007 filmLust, Caution,he carefully noted (even though he praised the film) that it “does not offer the same unmediated insight into the minds and hearts of its lovers thatBrokeback Mountain[2005] did. Fundamentally, we all felt that we knew, really knew, what it felt like for the two cowboys to be in love; here the question is a little more difficult.”¹ But isLust, Cautionreally an emotional riddle to be deciphered? Or is it rather the case that affective states in the film are part of a...

  5. Part 2: The Western Philosophy of Ang Lee

    • The Power to Go beyond God’s Boundaries? Hulk, Human Nature, and Some Ethical Concerns Thereof
      (pp. 165-176)
      Adam Barkman

      “We live in an upside-down world,” remarks director Ang Lee. “Biblically, we lost Paradise.”¹ This comment is central to Lee’s vision for his 2003 movieHulk,based on the Marvel comic book seriesThe Incredible Hulk.In past films, Lee demonstrated an array of philosophical approaches, but in this movie, the philosophical themes and concepts are religious ones, especially Judeo-Christian ones. For example, when Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk) blows up a frog during a lab test, his longtime love, Betty Ross, jokes that they now know who they can turn to when a “plague [of] frogs start falling from...

    • Displacement, Deception, and Disorder: Ang Lee’s Discourse of Identity
      (pp. 177-191)
      Timothy M. Dale and Joseph J. Foy

      Ang Lee is a director known for adapting complex and sophisticated narratives into traditional film genres. Through a distinct filmmaking style, Lee’s movies simultaneously take advantage of the tools available in each genre while also challenging, expanding, and transcending the genres themselves. This chapter examines three of Lee’s notable contributions to genre films,Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000, martial arts),Hulk(2003, superhero–action), andBrokeback Mountain(2005, western), arguing that Lee transcends the genres in part by presenting a consistent philosophy of identity across the films.¹ Specifically, through these movies a philosophy of identity emerges that is skeptical of...

    • Subverting Heroic Violence: Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock and Hulk as Antiwar Narratives
      (pp. 192-209)
      David Zietsma

      Popular culture is replete with images of violence. The use of violence is especially widespread on entertainment screens, as evidenced in video games such asCall of Duty(Activision, 2003) andAssassin’s Creed(Ubisoft, 2007), television shows such asThe Shield(2002–2008),Oz(1997–2003), andCriminal Minds(2005–present), and films such asThe Departed(Martin Scorsese, 2006),300(Zack Snyder, 2006), andRighteous Kill(Jon Avnet, 2008). This culture of violence is enmeshed in a broader culture of nationalistic militarism that celebrates violence as a heroic means to moral ends. A multitude of war films depict American...

    • Homo Migrans: Desexualization in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock
      (pp. 210-229)
      Nancy Kang

      Ang Lee’sTaking Woodstock(2009) is a problematic adaptation of Elliot Tiber’s eponymous 2007 memoir because it dilutes and subverts the gay liberationist ideology that is the nucleus of Tiber’s work. What should have been a coming-out story veers off into a discourse weighing filial duty against duty to self. The desexualization process, which is Lee’s way of rhetorically recloseting (that is, camouflaging) gay identity, is the central theme of this discussion. Desexualization is a strategic approach to the work’s plot and characterization that renders peripheral what was originally central, namely homosexual identity formation. The film accommodates queerness (broadly conceived,...

    • Because of the Molecules: The Ice Storm and the Philosophy of Love and Recognition
      (pp. 230-242)
      Susanne Schmetkamp

      For a moment,The Ice Storm(1997) brings everything to a standstill. Everything falls silent. As the audience will learn to appreciate, this is a time for self-reflection and for the contemplation of others. It is a condition that has not existed until this juncture because the respective protagonists have been leading parallel lives instead of recognizing each other as family members, friends, and partners. Up until now, they have been focusing their passion and desire on something that has either led them in the wrong direction or toward something they were not prepared to take responsibility for. This existential...

    • It’s Existential: Negative Space and Nothingness in The Ice Storm
      (pp. 243-250)
      David Koepsell

      Two of the most important philosophical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are also the least understood. Phenomenology and existentialism mark, in many ways, the cultural move from modernism to postmodernism and serve as the context for much of the twentieth century’s significant and lasting contributions to our present world. Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed film,The Ice Storm(1997), based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same name, is an existential masterpiece, depicting the crossroads at which humanity stands through a story about a New England family in Nixon’s America.

      In light of the successes of science and...

    • THE ICE STORM: What Is Impending?
      (pp. 251-264)
      George T. Hole

      The Ice Storm(1997) opens, we feel we are moving, but the scene is dark and unidentifiable. Credits appear; some letters are out of focus, and then slowly become clear. The moving image becomes distinct. We have been following railroad tracks, and we see icicles hanging underneath a train car. We next view a page of a comic book, then the young boy reading it in a commuter train. The car’s overhead lights flicker. We are outside the train, slowly beginning to move with grinding sounds. Above the train, sparks fly in the night sky. Back inside, a conductor calls...

    • All’s Fair in Love and War? Machiavelli and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil
      (pp. 265-290)
      James Edwin Mahon

      Ang Lee’sRide with the Devil(1999) is a film about war and love. It is a common belief, captured in the proverb “All’s fair in love and war,”¹ that when it comes to war and love, there are no rules.² The ends—winning the war, and winning the heart of one’s beloved—are supposed to justify any means whatsoever. In particular, they are supposed to justify deception.³ In this chapter I will address the question of whetherRide with the Devilendorses the view that when it comes to war and love, deception is justified.

      InRide with the...

  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 291-292)
  7. Glossary of Chinese Terms
    (pp. 293-294)
  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 295-298)
  9. Index
    (pp. 299-302)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-304)