When dad is also the director

Taiwan-born director Lee Ang, widely regarded as one of the best film-makers of this generation, is soft-spoken, almost bashful, when he talks about his films.

At a recent Taipei press junket to promote his new film, the war drama Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, the 62-year-old displayed another side of him - that of a father. His son Mason, 26, has a supporting role as a member of Bravo squad.

Lee says: "There's this clash between the nature of a father and the nature of a director. As a director, you need that killer instinct - I'm a professional so I don't harm anyone in the process - but as a parent, you want to protect them, so it's a little contradictory."

That said, he adds with a laugh: "I didn't go easier on him than on the others."

The movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is about the bravery of the titular character (played by British newcomer Joe Alwyn), who rushes to his sergeant's aid while they are under fire in Iraq.

While it is hard to imagine the genial Lee being stern and demanding, he had no qualms about setting standards for his son during filming.

The actors had to undergo a tough two-week bootcamp before filming started and Lee says he was not worried about "torturing" his son.

"I was more worried about the others going through that training and I couldn't sleep well while they were at the training centre."

Mason, who also attended the press event, seems stumped when asked about his relationship with his father.

"He's a normal person, I don't really know how to answer. Maybe he stares off into space more than others because he's always thinking about his movies, so he needs to relax when he's not filming," says Mason.

One tidbit he reveals is that Lee loves to cook and his signature dishes include sanbei chicken, zhajiang noodles and spaghetti.

"Mum doesn't really cook. When we were young, he would make a lot of food for us to eat before leaving."

Lee is married to microbiologist Jane Lin and they have another son, Haan, 32, who is an artist.

Lee's actions say more about what he is like as a father - and he certainly does not seem to be an Asian tiger dad.

For one thing, he did not demand that Mason speak Mandarin at home when the boy was growing up in the United States, where Lee is based.

"He refused to speak it when he was young, it was useless trying to force it. But here in Taiwan, he insists on speaking to me in Mandarin," says Lee.

When Mason went into acting, he did not offer a lot of advice beyond the need for him to brush up on his Mandarin if he wanted to develop his career in Taiwan.

Mason studied acting at New York University and his credits include parts in the comedy The Hangover Part II (2011) and the science-fiction action flick Lucy (2014).

In Taiwan, he was nominated for a Golden Bell Award for best supporting actor in a miniseries/TV movie for playing a student who has an affair with his teacher in The End Of Love (2015).

While he does not explicitly cite his father's work as the reason he went into acting, he reveals in a separate interview: "Definitely, growing up, there were a lot of films in our house, DVDs and VHS tapes. Just growing up watching a lot of films and being influenced by a lot of great performances, a lot of great 1970s films.

"The choice to actually become an actor just came pretty naturally in high school. I did plays and was very intrigued by performance and stuff."

Maybe the elder Lee's influence was deeper and more subtle.

After all, Mason chose to go to the same school his father went to, and he made his acting debut in a Lee Ang film - as a baby in The Wedding Banquet (1993), a family drama- comedy.

Lee says of Mason: "He wants to be an actor and he has talent. I don't know if he has that rapport with audiences, that's for others to say." And while he and Mason are not demonstrably affectionate in public, Lee adds sweetly: "I love this child, he's so adorable, considerate and honest."

Since The Wedding Banquet pushed Lee into the limelight, winning the Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film-maker has achieved much more.

He has won the Oscar twice for Best Director - for gay-themed romance Brokeback Mountain (2005) and fantasy adventure Life Of Pi (2012); another Golden Bear for period drama Sense And Sensibility (1995); and two Golden Lions, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Brokeback Mountain and espionage thriller Lust, Caution (2007).

The films vary in language, time period, setting and genre, and yet, they are all united by one fact: "They are all movies that I did my best to make and so I'm the common link."

Lee sees the themes changing every few films. "In the beginning, it was about family, the struggle between reason and emotions, the clash between the individual and society, and then it kept on changing."

His first three films - Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) - have been dubbed the "Father Knows Best" trilogy as they deal with conflicts between an older, more traditional generation and their children.

Lee went on to make martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), superhero flick Hulk (2003) and music-themed comedy drama Taking Woodstock (2009).

While the form differed greatly, ultimately, he says his movies are about man's sense of security and the nature of truth and illusion.

He points out that in The Wedding Banquet, there are real emotions and a fake dinner. In Billy Lynn, there is a lavish half-time show at a football match celebrating a brave soldier and what actually happened.

"It's an investigation of the line between truth and illusion. And how do we adapt to a world we cannot grasp? We need security and conviction and yet the world won't let us place our faith in any kind of reasoning, be it patriotism or otherwise. They are all shattered in the end and there's a search for something bigger to serve as a spiritual pillar.

"In the past, this contradiction was reflected through the family. Now, it's represented by war, by drifting."

What drives Lee now is not the idea of his legacy, but something more fundamental. "I still have this child-like curiosity, maybe I'm developing more slowly. If I have the strength, I would feel guilty if I didn't continue. If I were no longer excited by making films, then I wouldn't," he says.


This article was first published on November 9, 2016.
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