Between Impression and Expression: Ang Lee

In 1978, as I applied for film studies at the University of Illinois, my father expressed his disapproval. He quoted me a statistic: “Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.” Still, I went against his advice and boarded a flight to the U.S. Since then, my father and I have had a strained relationship. In the last 20 years, we have spoken less than a hundred words to one another.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I finally understood my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Taiwanese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as an editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: “At 30, one stands firm.” Yet I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was very small. At the time, we already had our oldest son, Han, to raise. To appease my feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with my son, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance.

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as startup capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant, hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I had to face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered my schedule of classes. That night, she didn’t say anything.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, “Ang, don’t forget your dream.”

And that dream of mine – drowned by the demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces, and tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and started to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, “I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.”

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And it’s made me more assured: I must continue making films.

(Ang Lee, on winning his first Academy Award in 2006)

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