THERE IS A MOMENT in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm when a father stands, suitcase in hand, in the doorway of his son's bedroom. "I'm back!" he announces cheerfully. His son stares at him as if he's never seen him before. "You ... you were gone?" he stutters. It is the axis upon which the whole film rotates. After "Pinteresque silence" and "Hitchcockian suspense", we may one day talk about "Ang Lee excruciating family moments".

"The worst thing about being a parent," says Lee, who has sons of 13 and seven, "is the fear that you're not good enough. These days, you cannot just play out the role of father like men in the Fifties did. You have to learn some very hard lessons on the way." Familial love and its attendant strains, disappointments and tensions are his datum. As one of the sons in The Ice Storm puts it: "Your family is ... the place you come from and the void you return to when you die."

Rick Moody's novel - upon which the film is based - follows a dissolving family as it moves from crisis to tragedy to a kind of redemption. It was its harshness that appealed to Lee. "It's bleaker than my other work partly because of the implications of the sexual revolution on the family unit." Set in 1973 in the midst of the Watergate scandal, it is a study of Seventies mores - self-help books, couple-therapy, key-parties - and is as much a costume drama as his last film, Sense and Sensibility. The Ice Storm conscientiously refrains from mockery of a time when the whole world committed serious fashion crimes on a daily basis. "It would have been too easy," Lee says simply. "What interested me was its textures of chaos and harmony."

These two words recur again and again in his conversation. Although he is clearly wearied by jet-lag and a round of interviews, Lee exudes an almost tangible calm. "Western movies are usually about chaotic conflict, and Eastern movies about creating harmony. Everything in The Ice Storm is in revolution, and that's the pattern things take: harmony, then, BOOM!" - he makes a gesture of explosion with his hands -"chaos. Everyone must then try to find their own balance. I use it a lot in my Chinese movies, and I used it again here because even though I was doing a western movie, I still needed an honest representation of who I am, my vision."

One of the most astonishing things about The Ice Storm (and there are many) is the quality of performance Lee elicits from his cast: Kevin Kline has the air of a man-child at sea in an adult world that dictates he must be amoral; Sigourney Weaver is a bored suburban dragon-lady, behind whose kohl-rimmed eyes there simmers a potentially lethal fury; and Christina Ricci is a sullen, smileless time-bomb of nascent sexuality. Lee has a reputation for rather unorthodox methods of direction (he distracted Emma Thompson et al from their "English stage attitude" by driving past a cartload of dogs; Hugh Grant nicknamed him "the Beast" for his bullying techniques). So did he treat this cast to any rude shocks? Lee laughs nervously: "Not so much. In Sense and Sensibility I was trying to reduce the Englishness of an English movie so that it could be globally appreciated. I didn't have to do that here. I built the entire cast round Kevin because I knew that he was a likeable comedian who could handle a dramatic role. The kids had no better thing to offer than innocence itself. In a couple of years they'll have lost it. So you don't want it to go; you want to give them as simple direction as possible."

He has a habit of taking on historical and social situations - whether Regency England or 1970s New Canaan - on which he has only a removed perspective. Leaving Taiwan for the States in 1978 meant he only heard about Watergate from a distance. "I'm attached and detached," he says with a shrug. So what comes next? "A western," he grins, quick as a flash, as if daring me to be surprised: "a civil-war movie. Burning, looting, horses, amputation. You know. Then another Chinese movie. Back to where I began, I guess." M O'F

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