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Cultural Provocateur : In 'The Wedding Banquet,' Ang Lee Stirs Up Custom

August 04, 1993|PATRICK PACHECO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lee was encouraged by his parents to pursue an education in the United States in the hope that he, too, would become a scholar. His father was dismayed when his son chose filmmaking instead--an ambition partly fed by Lee's passion for Western movies, especially those by Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and neo-realist masterpieces, like Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thief." After getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, Lee went on to New York University's film school.

"Film study was considered disgraceful by my father," Lee said. "It wasn't until I won the Berlin Film Festival award last year that he finally thought that maybe it was OK."

Before that, however, Lee struggled for 15 years in the United States in what he called "development hell," supported by his Taiwan-born wife, Jane Lin, a microbiologist whom he had met in Illinois. His student films brought him recognition and awards but no big breaks.

For one thing, Hollywood didn't quite know what to do with Lee. Producers considered Lee's emotionally complex scripts, which he had written on speculation, to be of limited appeal. "I never experienced what I'd call racism in these meetings," said Lee. "They just weren't interested."

In 1990, however, Lee's scripts for "The Wedding Banquet" and "Pushing Hands" won a Taiwan state film competition. The Central Motion Picture Corp., partly backed with government funds, balked at financing "a gay movie." But it gave the green light to "Pushing Hands" about a former Tai-Chi master from China who comes to live with his only son in New York. That film explored the cross-cultural and generational conflicts that have been the spine of almost all of Lee's work.

That process of self-discovery is the theme of his next project, "Eat, Drink, Men and Women," a Chinese-language film to be shot entirely in Taipei about a Taiwanese cook and his three unmarried daughters who seek their own sense of liberation. "There is even more breaking away in it than in 'The Wedding Banquet,' " he said.

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