In 1993, Whitney Crothers Dilley took her future husband to see The Wedding Banquet (喜宴), a film by an as yet unknown Taiwanese director named Ang Lee (李安). Dilley, then a doctoral student at the University of Washington, chose the movie because she was feeling nostalgic about the three years she had spent learning Mandarin in Taiwan. A dozen years later she would write the first book on Lee's films in English, the first academic treatment of his work, a book Chinese film specialist Chris Berry has called "essential reading for any scholar of either contemporary Chinese or American film."
Dilley and I met two weeks ago at a cafe across the street from the Taipower Building (台電大樓) in Taipei to talk about her life and her new book, The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen.
"I was drawn to different cultures in college," she tells me. "At the end of college, I tried to think of what would be an extremely difficult language to learn. I picked Chinese."
"When I was here for those three years, I felt that what I learned about the people and the culture here really drew me. I felt very much at home, so I wanted to make a life here. And I thought the best way to do was to get my PhD and work at a university."
"I'd never seen Shi Hsin before" being hired, she says, "and I was just delighted when I went through that tunnel and saw the valley, the mountains, the motorcycles and that environment. It was like a gift for me."
Dilley says living here has changed her.
"Even my parents noticed this," she says. "When I went back to New York once I asked my mom if she wanted to live with me when she got older, and her response was, 'No. Why would I want to do that?'"
I tell her about David Barton, a professor in the English Department of the National Central University in Chungli City, who also recently published a novel here. Barton, a Canadian, said in a recent interview [see Page 18 of the Sunday, Nov. 25, edition of the Taipei Times] that he does not feel he has the right to talk to his students about Taiwanese artists. How does she feel about discussing Lee with Taiwanese students?
"I feel completely comfortable talking about Ang Lee," she says, "maybe because he's made so many American films. And a British film, Sense and Sensibility."
It's also because Lee's formative experiences, she feels, were in the US, after graduating with a master's degree in film from New York University's highly competitive program, when for six years he was unable to find work.
"I'm sure you can imagine," Dilley says, "he graduated from NYU with this film degree and he was already achieving a measure of success with his final film, his graduate project, which was actually played on [public television] and won some awards. But after that - nothing. He was unable to pitch his films because he was from Taiwan and had an accent, and no one wanted to sit down and give him the time of day."
Dilley believes that experience has given Lee a fearlessness and a sense of being willing to work with insecurity. "I think he works better if there are situations where there's insecurity," she says, mentioning Brokeback Mountain, which Lee made after the commercial and critical failure, Hulk. "In his films he's always riding the edge; he's always pushing further; and his art is full of risk."
This is one aspect that draws her to Lee's film. Another: his "astonishing humility." A third: Lee's interest in identity. "We all feel like aliens and strangers in this world," she says. "He puts that on the screen and tries to help us understand those alienated people."