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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.