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The borderless world of Ang Lee

Saibal Chatterjee profiles the maverick director. Oscars 2006

india Updated: Mar 11, 2006 18:52 IST

When the low-profile Ang Lee, winner of this year’s Oscar for best director, made a small part of his acceptance speech in Chinese, it wasn’t just a token nod to his linguistic roots. The world did need reminding that the director of the gay cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain, set in the vast, stunning natural vistas of Wyoming, US, is actually Taiwanese by birth and upbringing.

Well, India’s Shekhar Kapur has gone there before – making films that have had nothing to do with his Asian roots – but there is nobody quite like Ang Lee on the global showbiz circuit today. He is cinema’s equivalent of a peripatetic, border-defying, culture-crossing world citizen.

In his films, Lee transits from one culture to another without letting the effort show. From the universe of a Chinese martial arts fantasy (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) to Jane Austen’s pastoral England (Sense and Sensibility) to a Connecticut middle class milieu (The Ice Storm) to the rugged, rough-hewn world of two cowboys who fall in love in ranch country, he is at ease no matter where he goes.

It is the distance and objectivity that he brings to Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation of a story by a Pulitzer Prize winner, that stand out as you watch the film. It is a deliberately paced but emotionally affecting piece of storytelling, but at no point in the narrative does the director get remotely self-conscious about the nature of the film’s theme or the location of the drama.

Brokeback Mountain is a study of despair, loneliness and the complications that life on the edge can push men into.

If a native US-born director had helmed

Brokeback Mountain

, he would, among other things, probably have allowed an element of politics – as the world knows, the polemics surrounding homosexuality can get rather trickily shrill at times – to inevitably creep into the picture. Lee, in contrast, approaches his tragic gay drama in the manner that another director would have adopted to treat a conventional heterosexual love story.

In essence, Brokeback Mountain is a study of despair, loneliness and the complications that life on the edge can push men into. The two male protagonists, Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), meet as 19-year-olds when they are hired by a rancher to watch over a large herd of sheep on Brokeback Mountain in the summer of 1963.

Framed against the dwarfing grandeur of nature, the lack of companionship and warmth literally drives them towards each other and before they realise what is happening, the two cowboys have become gay lovers. It is here that director Lee is at his best: the naturalness of the stealthy stirring of forbidden passion is presented with candour and confidence, attributes that stand Brokeback Mountain in really good stead all the way through.

Ennis and Jack are young men unfamiliar with the sort of intense bonding that develops between them. They are unprepared, confused, swept off their feet. After the first sexual encounter, Ennis says, “I’m not no queer.” Jack’s response: “Me neither.” The obstacles become instantly clear: they exist not only in the social milieu that the men belong to but also within themselves.

But such is the force of their feelings for each other that it survives even when the two men drift apart and into marriage and domesticity. So, Ennis, father of two daughters, is delighted when, years later, Jack, now married with a son, turns up at his doorstep and offers to resume the relationship. Everyone, bar the two men, knows all too well that this dangerous liaison is fated for disaster. When tragedy does strike, it inevitably assumes epic proportions.

Brokeback Mountain is a triumph for Ang Lee and Asia, but because of the nature and scope of the material up on the screen, it isn’t necessarily going to provide a fillip to Asian cinema. Brokeback Mountain has nothing in common with the cinema of this continent. Ang Lee is no more either Chinese or American – his cinema has acquired wings that allow it to soar over geographical boundaries as effortlessly as he translates a literary text into cinematic language.