Ang Lee is the recipient of the Fellowship at the 2021 EE British Academy Film Awards.
Words by Neil Smith
The following is an extract from the official 2021 EE British Academy Film Awards brochure. Our press release announcing the news can be found here.
It’s thrilling to be with such giants as Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini and Kubrick. They are my idols.
The latest deserving recipient of BAFTA’s highest honour is no stranger to the organisation or its awards, with no less than five wins to his name and many more nominations. Despite this, Lee expresses both surprise and humility at becoming the newest recipient of the Fellowship. “What can I say? It’s a tremendous honour,” he says. “It’s thrilling to be with such giants as Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini and Kubrick... They were my idols.”
Born in southern Taiwan in 1954, Lee grew up on a diet of musical melodrama and martial arts pictures. It was only later that he discovered art cinema, a revelation that took him to the US and New York University’s highly prestigious film school. Success did not come immediately upon graduation, leading to a lean few years. But the tide turned in 1990 when he submitted two screenplays to a Taiwanese screenwriting competition, finishing first and second place. These became 1991’s Pushing Hands and 1993’s The Wedding Banquet.
Being foreign is a big thing for me. I’m always looking from outside in and inside out.
A year later, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) caught the attention of BAFTA, receiving a nomination for Film Not in the English Language. “I started out making mainstream movies for a Taiwanese audience, in America,” Lee explains. “They had to be specific but also universal. Being foreign is a big thing for me. I’m always looking from outside in and inside out.”
Lee proved to be an inspired choice to direct the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility, an exquisite comedy of manners with a powerfully emotional undertow. Two further adaptations, 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1999’s Ride With The Devil, showed his ability to turn pre-existing material into resonant drama. Next, Lee promptly headed to China to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). “I wasn’t a martial arts director but I was allowed to give it a try,” he says. “I used to joke it was both my childhood fantasy and my midlife crisis.”
More left turns followed, first with 2003’s Hulk, an audacious reappraisal of the Marvel superhero, and then Brokeback Mountain (2005), an adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story about two cowboys who clandestinely fall in love. Delicately crafted, brilliantly acted and almost unbearably sad, the latter saw Lee crowned best director at both the BAFTAs and the Oscars. “I didn’t know what I had in common with gay cowboys but it was a great love story,” Lee reflects. “I was also exhausted after Hulk, so it was a very nurturing experience that gave me back my love of moviemaking.”
The challenge is always to try something new. I would like my career to be like a never-ending film school.
Lust, Caution (2007), Taking Woodstock (2009) and Life Of Pi (2012) came next, the latter seeing him deploy the most sophisticated visual effects available to bring Yann Martel’s tale of a young Indian sharing a lifeboat with a tiger to three-dimensional life. Lee’s fascination with technology was on display again in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) and Gemini Man (2019. “The challenge is always to try something new,” says Lee. “I would like my career to be like a never-ending film school and I want to try everything.”
Neil Smith is a journalist, critic and contributing editor of Total Film
Contour by Getty Images