Ang Lee’s “Father Knows Best Trilogy” (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman), part of Intimate Views from Afar: The Films of Ang Lee, August 1-11 at the Walter Reade Theater
Time may have named Ang Lee “America’s Best Director” in 2001, but film snobs have since found it increasingly easy to dismiss the Taiwan-born filmmaker as an aesthetic conservative, especially after the excessive Oscar-baiting tastefulness and glaring lack of emotional commitment in Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution. For all his artistic and public reticence, though, Lee has never been a mere metteur en scène — and to see just how personal he can get with his perennial theme of individualistic desire butting up against socially enforced discipline, one need only turn to the three family comedies that jumpstarted his career.
Now grouped together as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, these films are (unlike most of Lee’s subsequent work) evocative of their time, having been lucky enough to arrive at a moment when both Asian-American fiction and Taiwanese art films were gaining wider visibility. When Pushing Hands premiered in 1992, Amy Tan was in the midst of publishing a string of bestsellers. Back in Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang were getting ready to deliver epic masterworks that conjured up the nation’s suppressed cultural memory. Emerging alongside these two different but vital movements, Lee’s early films struck their own path — one that proved commercially viable, and also held out the promise of a new Asian-American cinema.
Now that the immigrant narrative has long since become a literary cliché, we can more easily discern what makes Lee’s trilogy so exceptional. Even more than the bravura entertainment of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, these films reveal the director’s gift for elegant, straightforward storytelling. At their center stands a highly symbolic father figure, representative of a whole generation of Mainlanders who retreated to Taiwan mid-century along with the Kuomintang government. Played by Sihung Lung with a quiet wisdom that miraculously circumvents caricature, this patriarch is imagined — like the KMT-ruled Taiwan itself — as a repository for authentic Chinese civilization. In each film, through his strained relationships with his fully modernized children, the father is forced to confront the realities of globalization and the obsolescence of his own knowledge.