Taiwanese film director Ang Lee’s (李安) award of best director at the Oscars on Sunday night for Life of Pi was a source of tremendous pride for Taiwan, especially after he thanked Taiwanese for their help in making the movie.
The Oscar is a new benchmark in Lee’s illustrious career and one that he made little secret he coveted. However, the evidence of his greatness as a filmmaker manifested itself well before the 58-year-old native of Pingtung County stepped onto the podium to receive his Oscar.
Over the years, Lee has transcended his identity as an Asian and tackled with great precision a surprisingly versatile list of genres, from Victorian Britain in Sense and Sensibility — a feat of civilizational displacement perhaps only equaled by Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in his book The Remains of the Day — to the American West and male homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain.
From less ambitious and more local efforts like his Father Knows Best trilogy (家庭三部曲) to the martial arts extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Lee has constantly pushed the envelope of storytelling and proven himself as one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
However, there was nothing preordained in Lee’s rise to the top. In fact, his success occurred against all odds, with constant reminders from family and the society he grew up in that filmmaking — especially filmmaking by an Asian in the West — was not a realistic or respectable job. Among those who opposed his artistic ambitions was his father, who for years refused to speak to the young Lee as he struggled to make it in Hollywood. Relatives offered him money so he would open a Chinese restaurant, and in his struggling years, Lee even began studying informatics, thinking he might find a job working with computers.
That we are able to enjoy Lee’s artistic vision today is largely thanks to his wife, Jane Lin (林惠嘉), who never stopped believing in her husband’s dreams and, when the fledgling filmmaker was on the brink of giving up, gave him that extra push (it was she who returned the money given Lee to open the restaurant).
There is a lesson in this. While Taiwanese on Monday were eager to celebrate the “pride of Taiwan” for his achievement, the great majority of them, along with their government, looked the other way when Lee was struggling as an assistant on movie sets, on the brink of giving up and taking up a “real job.”
Far too often, Taiwanese denigrate the arts and sports, discouraging their children from pursuing their dreams and forcing them to choose career paths that are unsuited to them. As with basketball player Jeremy Lin (林書豪), Taiwan is happy to claim successes, but rarely provides the support necessary to achieve such goals.
Lee, like many others who have shone on the international scene, succeeded not because of Taiwan, but despite it.
As Taiwan struggles to break through the wall of silence that surrounds its existence, it is high time that dreamers be cultivated and encouraged to press ahead, even if, in the short term, such endeavors do not translate into dollar figures. A nation is not built on lawyers, doctors and businesspeople alone. It needs thinkers, writers, philosophers, filmmakers, painters, architects and professional athletes.
Only through proper support, both financial and moral, will tomorrow’s “prides of Taiwan” emerge to help put the nation on the map. They are out there today, and they need all the encouragement they can get.