SAN RAFAEL, California -- The tribute to filmmaker Ang Lee
at the Mill Valley Film Festival Friday evening was something of a homecoming for the Oscar winning director of Brokeback Mountain
and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
. When Lee brought out his first film, Pushing Hands
, in 1992, Mill Valley "was the only place in the world that would show my film," Lee told the audience. "Even Sundance turned it down."
Then again, in 1997, Mill Valley screened his The Ice Storm
when he was still a virtually unknown director. When he finally returned to Marin County several years later to live for the better part of a year while doing special visual effects at ILM for The Hulk
, he was world famous, having made the most successful Chinese-language film ever with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Lee's latest film, Lust, Caution
, an intense psycho-sexual drama set in Japanese-occupied China during World War II -- which has opened to significant boxoffice in Asia, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong, but divided Western critics so far -- opened the festival the night before, kicking off Mill Valley's 30th anniversary celebration.
So his love of the area and of its festival, one of the key regional festivals in the country, was unmistakable, as was the emotional response to his work by a packed house.
Between film clips from his 10 feature films, Lee took the audience through the cultural and cinematic education of a Taiwanese man who has become a major international moviemaker.
Lee spent the first 23 years of his life in his native country, including college and military service. "I was culturally rooted and I didn't speak English," he noted. "I didn't learn to speak English until after 'Sense and Sensibility. I felt sorry for the actors I had to direct."
His initial love affair was with the theater, not film. Standing on stage, facing an audience for the first time, an experience he re-creates in Lust, Caution
, thrilled him. There was also, he pointed out, no filmmaking tradition in Taiwan at the time.
Coming to New York and not knowing English well, he knew he could not act so he moved into directing. In delving into Western stage drama, he had to break with his own cultural biases.