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Ang Lee: The Master of Repression

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By Nick Schager

IFC News

[Photos: Left, Tang Wei in “Lust, Caution”; below, Ang Lee on set, Focus Features, 2007]

Ang Lee’s films are fixated on the repression of desire, either by the self or by social constructs, so it’s fitting that the acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker’s canon is defined by a cool, subdued style that stifles exhilaration. Unlike his more illustrious and rarefied Taiwanese contemporaries, boundary-pushing modern masters Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Lee’s sensibilities are about as mainstream as they come. Habitually measured, pensive and beautiful, Lee’s films subscribe to an approach that might best be described as graceful, innocuous stateliness, the director’s penchant for visual and sonic elegance likely responsible for his well-regarded critical reputation in the U.S., and yet matched by an atmospheric remove that frustrates any sense of passion. Lee is an able craftsman whose reserved techniques are tailor-made for Oscar season, in which tastefulness and thoughtfulness are, generally speaking, the preferred storytelling modes. So how to explain his latest, “Lust, Caution,” a fiery WWII espionage drama (recent recipient of the Golden Lion, aka Best Picture, at the Venice International Film Festival) that, despite a predictable fascination with facades and containment, is so sexually explicit that it garnered the doggedly middle-of-the-road director an NC-17 rating?

In terms of its raciness, the film — which builds to an explosive crescendo of sadomasochistic release between Tony Leung’s Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee and stunning newcomer Tang Wei’s Chinese spy Mrs. Mak — couldn’t seem more tonally removed from its creator. Born in Taiwan but filmicly educated at NYU, the diminutive, soft-spoken, 52-year-old Lee initially made a name for himself with 1992’s “The Wedding Banquet” and 1994’s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” both archetypal examples of early-’90s metro-arthouse cinema. Smart, sophisticated and formally unadventurous, they proved his adeptness at character-driven tales while laying out what would become familiar preoccupations with the family unit, the relationship between fathers and children, and the means by which — whether it be Wai-tung and Simon in “Banquet,” Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” or Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” — cultural constraints and attitudes complicate attempts to attain security, happiness and love. Those two well-received efforts led to his first big-studio break, “Sense and Sensibility,” a kindred thematic spirit to his prior projects that also, despite being an English-language period piece based on Jane Austen’s Brit-lit classic, naturally meshed with Lee’s dignified, muted direction. The ideal marriage of artist and material, it unsurprisingly garnered seven Academy Award nods.

If Lee’s methods are restrained and conservative, his subsequent career choices have nonetheless exhibited a persistent dedication to risk-taking. Immersion in, and examination of, alien cultural microcosms is a prime characteristic of all Lee’s work, whether it be the Taiwanese family unit in “The Wedding Banquet,” upper-middle-class American suburbia in “The Ice Storm” (1997), or the South during the Civil War in “Ride with the Devil” (1999). Avoiding comfort zones by choosing unfamiliar milieus is one of his most admirable traits, though it’s not a tack that consistently pays off, since his unwavering directorial staidness doesn’t always complement the given story at hand. This is most readily apparent with regards to “Devil,” a handsome but wholly inert epic about brotherhood and nationhood drained of any ardor or rousing excitement by picture-postcard compositions and a mundane sweeping score. To be fair, the unwise gamble of casting Skeet Ulrich and Jewel in key roles contributes drastically to the overwhelming torpor. Yet there’s also a sense that, in this instance, Lee has simply strayed too far from his creative sweet spot, his temperamental mildness ill at ease with his story’s portrait of inner tumult and transformation.

The same might also be said about “Hulk,” which after 2000’s uniformly well-received “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” found the director valiantly attempting to craft a summertime comic-book extravaganza without losing his trademark focus on characters’ conflicts within and with their environments. Roundly slammed as a failure, “Hulk” is nonetheless one of Lee’s most underappreciated and finest works, in large part because — in a manner 180-degrees contrary to that of his other unqualified triumph, “Sense and Sensibility” — the contrast between subject matter and approach is pronounced to the point that it generates a funky, electric friction. There’s constant disorienting tension between Lee’s interest in Bruce Banner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde torment — not to mention his concern with both Bruce’s testy relationship with his paterfamilias (Nick Nolte), and the repercussions wrought from society’s stipulation that man suppress his rage — and the dictate to deliver CG-aided Hulk-SMASH! action set pieces. Like so much of his work, “Hulk” epitomizes the filmmaker’s frequent modus operandi of reworking standard genres into “Ang Lee films,” a process in which introspection is considered as important as stirring thrills and spectacle, whether it be for the better (“Hulk,” “Crouching Tiger”) or worse (“Devil”).

In many ways a more polished (and stirring) version of Paul Verhoeven’s recent “Black Book,” “Lust, Caution” doesn’t significantly renovate or subvert spy movie conventions or expectations. During its steamy, highly charged centerpieces, though, it does radically upend the director’s usual nippy detachment. In these violently erotic trysts, with sweaty ecstasy and tortured agony freely blending together, “Lust, Caution” seems like the anti-“Brokeback Mountain,” which tackled its homosexual love story with a delicate modesty that, while mirroring the tale’s repressive air, self-consciously avoided any of the matter-of-fact graphic bluntness of Annie Proulx short story source material. With its picturesque vistas of Western landscapes and its intense concentration on its protagonists’ emotional and social condition, “Brokeback” is typical Lee, a film so attuned to his strengths that it’s little surprise it nabbed him his first Academy Award for Best Director. “Lust, Caution,” conversely, finds him moving, however gingerly, away from the safe and traditional confines of his celebrated prior achievements. It isn’t a resounding success — its protagonist’s motivations are ultimately too thinly developed, and its story a tad too drawn-out. Yet in its blistering heat, it also potentially portends a new future path for Lee, one in which the shelter of glossy aloofness is abandoned in favor of ever-more audacious, fervent modes of creative expression.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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