Ang Lee and China’s Oscar Angst
Ang Lee is a Taiwan-born American film director, screenwriter and producer. His many films, in both Chinese and English, have won critical acclaim: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) won him the Best Director prize at the Academy Awards (Oscars), the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs. Brokeback Mountain (2005) won the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Festival and Best Director prize (Lee’s second) at the Academy Awards. Lee’s latest success is Life of Pi, which won the 2013 Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score.
As Hollywood’s pre-eminent ethnically Chinese director, Lee’s life and career is of considerable interest to Chinese media and Internet commenters; his latest Oscar awards provoked many reactions in China. Generally, reactions to Lee on the Chinese Mainland fall into three categories:
- The first is one of hand-wringing and complaint, mostly on social media, about why the People’s Republic has still failed to produce an Oscar-winning director. Some people noted that in his Oscars acceptance speech, Lee thanked Taiwan for making the film possible, and asked when the Mainland would get such a chance. State media organisations talk about the same problem but use a different tone. For example, an editorial in the Guangming Daily asked whether Lee’s Oscar should be a cause for joy or a cause for concern. It concluded by emphasising that Life of Pi was a success for Lee himself as well for American cinema, but not for the Chinese film industry, neither on the Mainland nor in Taiwan.
A second kind of reaction focuses on the factors behind Lee’s success. A common explanation attributes it to family values and the support of his wife, Jane Lee, a microbiologist. The Tianjin Daily (Tianjin ribao 天津日报) and the business website Hexun 和讯 for example, both ran commentaries crediting his successes to the guidance provided by his wife. The Wuhan Morning News (Wuhan chenbao 武汉晨报) asserted that Lee’s unyielding commitment to realising his dreams ‘should be copied by other professionals’. Speaking more specifically to the film industry, the PRC State Council Office for Taiwan Affairs said that ‘Ang Lee is a model for the entire Chinese film industry, not just on the Mainland’.
- The third category comprises commentaries that try to diminish Lee’s success by reporting negative stories associated with Life of Pi. For example, the Information Times (Xinxi shibao 信息时报) reported incorrectly that some American newspapers had refused to print Ang Lee’s picture because their editors couldn’t believe that Spielberg’s Lincoln had lost out to Life of Pi. Likewise, an article entitled ‘Many controversies surround Ang Lee’s Oscar’ (Li Ang duo Aosika shifei duo 李安夺奥斯卡是非多) chronicled complaints made by the special effects company Rhythm and Hues after Lee failed to acknowledge their work during his acceptance speech.
Nonetheless, Life of Pi was very popular with Chinese cinemagoers, taking US$17 million at the box office in its first week.