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
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.
introduces Lung as a retired taiqi master who has moved to New York City to live with his son and American daughter-in-law. Here Lee demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the ways in which the distances between people of different cultures can often seem unbridgeable. With a more vivid feel for the oppressiveness of American domesticity than anything found in The Ice Storm, the film chronicles Lung's journey from isolation to his eventual integration into a thriving overseas Chinese community. For the follow-up, 1993's The Wedding Banquet
, Lee shifts his focus to the plight of a gay son who cannot bear the disapproval of his sternly Confucian father. A surprise hit and Oscar nominee, Wedding
features its director in a brief cameo, helpfully explaining that what we see before us are the results of "5,000 years of sexual repression." Where, the film asks, does one's own private love life fit into a culture that prizes filial relationships above all others? Lee ends on a note of gut-wrenching uncertainty, with neither father nor son able to speak honestly about their unconditional love for one another.
Despite the participation of American producer James Schamus, both Pushing Hands
and The Wedding Banquet
give the sense of a foreign-born filmmaker stumbling through his own conflicted ideas about the West. The director's unease with his chosen milieu is key to the films' emotional impact and autobiographical thrust. Lee has publicly confessed his guilt over leaving his parents to pursue a career they discouraged him from, and it is not a stretch to imagine him addressing these films to his family — both as an apology and as self-justification.
Rounding out the trilogy, Eat Drink Man Woman
remains Lee's only film set in contemporary Taiwan. Leaving behind the tortured father-son pairings of the previous entries, the story revolves around a trio of filially pious daughters, torn between the desire to establish their own lives and their duty to an aging Lung — this time playing a renowned chef who loses his sense of taste. Not only does the film return Lee to his native soil, but it also finds him updating Taiwanese cinema's popular family melodramas of the 60s and 70s (such as those of director Li Xing). By overlapping his changing value system onto the deep devotion to family found in these earlier models, Lee enacts a struggle to reconcile the aesthetics he learned at NYU with an updated version of Confucian morality. It is his palpable sense of self-doubt that keeps these films more compelling than anything else he has made since. Although the trilogy succeeds as comedy, it is most relevant for being split at the root and at the heart.