'It's not a gay movie'

Director Ang Lee sees his latest film as a romantic tragedy about life in the macho American West. He talks to Kirsty Lang
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The Independent Culture

"All my films come back to my relationship with my father. He was a big, macho, patriarchal Chinese man and I'm still working that out." Film director Ang Lee has always been something of an enigma. Born in Communist China, raised in Taiwan, trained at film school in the United States, he made the most English of films, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility when his grasp of the language was limited. (He took an interpreter on set.) He's just made his second film about gay love, Brokeback Mountain, and yet he's a straight man.

For an A-list Hollywood director, Lee is very unassuming. Dressed in a dark suit with a black T-shirt underneath, he's small with a cheeky, boyish face and a beatific smile. He has a very soft voice and his body language exudes calm as he reclines into one of the Dorchester's comfy, floral-arm sofas. My first impression was of someone humble and polite, but don't you don't get where he has without a steely determination.

He says his childhood was not much fun. He was a shy, docile kid whose only escape was watching films. "I have a very different personality from my father, my whole demeanour is different." I get the impression that Lee senior was a stern man of few words, who like to be obeyed. He was the headmaster of Taiwan's equivalent of a top public school. His family were feudal landlords who fled China when the Communists took over and he saw it as his son's duty to uphold the family honour and tradition.

"I'm the first son so I was carrying the filial piety thing in a big way. To me, not only was my father the centre of our family, he also represented the Chinese patriarchal culture that moved to Taiwan and he wanted me to carry that torch. But I wanted to be a film-maker and that was a disgrace in our culture. Living with that has had a huge impact on my work. I guess I'm a pretty repressed person."

His father apart, Lee puts his directing style down to being an outsider. "It makes it easier to read the subtext, you don't have the cultural baggage or the theatrical conventions. You can stand back and watch." This would explain why he appears to choose film genres only to subvert them, whether it be a romantic comedy such as Sense and Sensibility, an American suburban drama such as The Ice Storm or the comic-book action movie The Hulk.

He's done it again with his latest film, Brokeback Mountain, another highly original work that cannot be pigeonholed. Gay cowboy movie is a shorthand way of describing it, but it's lazy. This is an epic romantic tragedy that has audiences reaching for their hankies and possibly reassessing how they feel about two men falling in love.

Earlier this week it received seven nominations for the Golden Globe Awards including best drama, director, actor, supporting actress, screenplay, score and song. The Globes are the most important movie awards after the Oscars and are seen as an early indicator of where the Academy awards might go. It was also voted film of the year by Los Angeles and New York film critics.

Lee seems surprised that anyone should label Brokeback as a gay film. "It's a great romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet and for that you need obstacles. The two characters Ennis and Jack are in the American West which has macho and traditional values, love between two men was taboo. So everything they feel, they have to keep private".

He insists it's not a Western either. "Westerns are an invented movie genre about gunslingers, usually set somewhere in the back of the Grand Canyon. This is a more realistic portrayal of the West that people outside of America, like myself, don't normally see."

Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story by Annie Proulx, who wrote The Shipping News. It first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1997 and very soon afterwards was turned into a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Lee saw the early drafts of the script but wasn't available to do it and, more to the point there was no financial backer for the idea, but he says it haunted him for years.

Set against the wild, mountainous landscape of Wyoming it tells the story of two young men - an out-of-work ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy - who meet one summer in the early Sixties when they both get work herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. They come from poor, rather unhappy backgrounds. In true Western fashion they're not great talkers; there's a lot of Clint Eastwood-style squinting, shuffling and staring into the distance.

Alone in the wilderness, this almost wordless friendship develops into a sexual relationship. The first time they do it, they're both drunk. The act is quick and violent. Afterwards Ennis turns to Jack and says, "I'm not queer you know," and Jack replies, "neither am I." The conversation goes no further, but you know from their expressions that the emotions are running deep. After they nonchalantly say goodbye to each other at the end of the summer, we are shown Ennis throwing up in an alleyway, his guts articulating what his brain cannot.

After that summer, the two men go their separate ways. Jack returns to Texas where he attempts to make a living as a Rodeo rider and marries a local girl with big hair. Ennis goes back to Wyoming, gets hitched to his childhood sweetheart and tries to eke out an existence as a farm labourer. They never speak to their wives about what happened in the summer of '63, but for the next 20 years they continue to meet up on Brokeback Mountain, ostensibly for fishing trips, but in reality every meeting is a painful attempt to recreate the ecstasy of that one summer. The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that Ennis and Jack's love destroys their lives. It can never truly be consummated and it drains everything else of meaning.

"What made the story particularly attractive to me is that they had no vocabulary to express feelings. I love all that non-verbal body language, they just squint into the wind. Silence can be very useful in cinema." Having struggled for so long to learn English through film school and his early career, Lee knows how that feels. "Its ironic that I should make a very verbal film like Sense and Sensibility when my English wasn't good. Now it is, I make a film in which there is very little dialogue."

I wondered what his father would have thought. He apparently didn't like any of his son's films until Lee made Sense and Sensibility. "For the first time after I made The Hulk he encouraged me to carry on. I was exhausted and didn't know if I wanted to make another movie. He told me I should - which is why I decided to do this project. Two weeks after that conversation, he died.

"I didn't tell him it was another gay movie," he adds and then chuckles loudly. In 1993 he made The Wedding Banquet about a gay Chinese man living in San Francisco who goes through a sham wedding with a woman friend to please his parents in Taiwan. It was a comedy, but Lee's father was not amused.

The two young men in Brokeback Mountain have distant relationships with hard, macho fathers - which was part of the attraction on the story for Lee. "Every father-son relationship has homo tension - I don't mean sexual. Hulk was about a man whose life was shaped by his domineering father and this is, too. Ennis and Jack are looking for masculine affection. Their first sex scene is for comfort and warmth. They're lost kids who need to comfort each other."

The film was made with a budget of only $13m (£7m), which is tiny by Hollywood standards and much smaller than Lee was used to. "This was an independent film and the cheapest I've made since Eat Drink Man Woman. We were also very unlucky with the weather - the light kept changing and we had sleet, hailstorms. It was freezing the whole time." But he concedes there was enough cash to realise his vision.

The subject made the film difficult to finance. It took eight years to reach the screen but now it's being talked about as favourite to win the Oscar for Best Movie. It's also the first film about gays to break into the multiplexes. Tom Hanks role as an Aids sufferer in Philadelphia went some of the way, but he never had to kiss anyone let alone have passionate, almost brutal, sex on screen as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal do.

Lee says the sex scenes were necessary to carry the plot forward. "I don't have a problem with them, I did no more or less than I thought was necessary." He's not sure how the film will go down in small-town America. "That's not why I made it, I don't have an issue to push. I just wanted to make a film about loss, about missing someone you love."

When I tell him that I cried at the end of the film and again in the car as I drove home, he's pleased. "I like making sad movies. When I began pitching to studios I learnt not to use the word sad - I would use 'profoundly moving' - but it's basically the same thing. I don't seek it out in my real life, but in films sad is beautiful."

'Brokeback Mountain' is released on 6 January

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