Ang Lee is famous for hopping between genres: westerns, romances, dramas, comedies, espionage thrillers, war movies, etc. Yet within these different exploits, he retains a constant elegance and empathy, and his gracefulness behind the camera is never lost. His last four films could not seem more different on the surface: Taking Woodstock is a coming of age comedy about Woodstock; Life of Pi is a mystical adventure with a boy and a tiger; Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an Iraq war satire; and Gemini Man is a 90s sci-fi action movie throwback. However, these four film have more in common than one might think, and they fit into themes and ideas that Lee has been playing with since his career’s beginning.
With Lee moving between genres, his films often exist within different environments. His movies take place on the open sea, at a rock music festival, a high-stakes football game, or even jumping between countries on spy missions. But these different surroundings are not just window dressing: his characters are displaced and lost, but they find themselves, even when grappling with unfamiliarity. In his movies, the environments in which his stories take place are always specific. They become not only part of the story, but part of the character’s arc. His protagonists change and evolve through the effects of their surroundings: the open ocean irrevocably changes Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), as he suffered through trauma and human horror on his journey; at the stadium, Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) sees the hollowness of American patriotism and how it uses his own grief for spectacle and false sympathy; Junior Brogan (Will Smith) finds a home, and a family, far from his own place of upbringing; Elliott Tiber (Demetri Martin) hardly leaves his backyard, but as new characters filter in, he sees a world rushing into the modern era.
These four films are about young men coming to terms with their purpose and sense of self as Lee explores the themes of masculinity and manhood. These boys are trying to manage wrestling with themselves, the expectations of others, and their own wants and needs. However, these young men do not inherently exhibit traits associated with toxic masculinity; or if they do, it’s because that’s a role they’ve been compelled to play. Lee’s sensitive hand behind the camera comes through with these men — they are introspective, often looking within themselves for answers to their frustrations, rather than taking their problems out on other people. These movies are about finding your way back from harmful behavior, but not through aggression or hostility. Instead, these films promote that the way to find yourself is through empathy, spirituality, and/or human connection.
Pi Patel and Elliot Tiber are both confronted by spiritual awakenings, one more literal than the other. Pi is on a quest for survival, where he processes the trauma of losing his home and family during a devastating storm. His fear and anger towards the tiger, Richard Parker, are emotions he has to control as he begins to respect and connect with it. At the end of the film, Pi reveals that the animal was an avatar for himself — the wild, uncontrollable, unfeeling, violent beast represented the dark parts of his own soul, but he had to let that part go so he could be whole again. Elliott lives in a heteronormative, money-obsessed family. As he begins to organize the Woodstock festival, he blossoms — finally putting his his ideas and creativity to work. He starts to see life in a new way, due to his encounters with hippies, gays, and artists. Though Elliott doesn’t ever make it to the festival, it opened up an enchanting new world for him, where he can finally live his life for himself.
Billy Lynn, the war hero, or Junior the assassin, are grappling with their roles as killers and coming to terms with what that means. Billy Lynn ultimately decides to go back to the Iraq War, not because he enjoys being in battle, but because that’s where he has camaraderie with people who understand him. Billy Lynn is just a figurehead for the American system that gave up on him and sent him off to a war that no one could comprehend. Junior was essentially created to be the perfect embodiment of a killer —ruthless and cold. He was cloned as part of a project to prevent future young people from dying in battle, but as his own humanity emerges, he can’t be a cog in the machine. Thanks to the influence of his elder cloned self, Henry (Smith), he rewires himself and chooses not to kill their shared creator — that singular part of his humanity is still there, and by not committing the murder he can end the cycle of dehumanization.
Through these four young men, Ang Lee is continuing his exploration of the effects location can have on characters. In the titular mountain in Brokeback Mountain, the confining suburbia in The Ice Storm, and the dichotomy of the country and the city in Sense and Sensibility, he formulates places that are almost living and breathing themselves. This is what unites Lee’s exploration into various genres. Because he is so sensitive and empathetic as a filmmaker, his work takes a deeper look at the transformative abilities of location on humanity. Life of Pi, Billy Lynn Long Halftime Walk, Gemini Man, and Taking Woodstock have varying public opinion and critical acclaim, yet together they highlight that Lee, even when ostensibly pushing the limits of film technology, is fascinated by the human condition, specifically how men find self-fulfillment through introspection.