Forbidden Desire in Ang Lee’s Films

On the legendary filmmaker’s 68th birthday, we look at how he infuses restrained desire into his vast filmography
Forbidden Desire in Ang Lee’s Films

Director Ang Lee’s versatility is legendary. When a filmography ranges from an Oscar-winning wuxia classic to a romance period drama to a superhero flick, it may seem like there’s nothing connecting one film to the next. Yet there are some ideas that Lee returns to as a director, intent upon exploring them in different settings and through varying perspectives. He has a fondness for characters who struggle against the convention, who yearn for things they’re not supposed to. Forbidden desire is sometimes a sub-plot, sometimes it’s at the heart of a story. It allows Lee to create complex characters who are both tempted and tormented.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

What better way to repress love than in the name of honour? In Lee’s wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) are trained warriors deeply in love with one another. But their affection is mired by the death of a dear friend: a man who died saving Mu Bai and was engaged to marry Shu Lien. It is his death that bring Mu Bai and Shu Lien closer but the two refuse to act on their feelings out of respect, spelling out a bittersweet justice. Lee presents moments of tender romance – hands that touch while receiving a cup of tea, fingers that briefly warm another’s cheek and comfort that weaves itself out of their silence. The first time Mu Bai admits that he loves Shu Lien, he is moments away from death. Shu Lien urges him to use his last breath to meditate and free himself from the world. “Don’t waste it on me,” she says. “I’ve wasted my whole life,” Shu Lien says, before professing his love. He dies in Shu Lien’s arms, her lips pressed to his. 

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Lee’s gay love story is set in stiflingly traditional circumstances: two masculine cowboys find reluctant passion in 1963, Wyoming – the same place where gay American student Matthew Shepard’s body will be found 35 years later. This brutality and fear haunt the film constantly: Ennis (Heath Ledger) talks about how his father had once taken him to see the remnants of two men clubbed to death because they were believed to be gay. The first time Ennis and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) have sex, propelled by whisky and a cosy tent, they make sure to tell each other that they aren’t queer. Years pass, marriages are attempted and given up on but the two men continue to seek each other out, frequently stunned by their abiding yearning for the other. Lee’s victory lies in the way he paints poignancy around their forbidden passion as each man hates himself for allowing himself to give into his greatest passion.

Lust, Caution (2007)

Much like the title suggests, Lee presents the idea of a tense sensuality in Lust, Caution – one that can only emerge between adversaries. A strikingly beautiful Wang Tei plays Wong Chia Chi, who must entice and enable the assassination of the dangerous Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), an agent of the puppet government set up by the Japanese occupation in China. The last thing Chia Chi expects on the mission is to find herself falling for the enemy. Lee imbues the classic romance trope with overt sexual intimacy. The erotic undertones in Lust, Caution become even more psychologically charged when they are transformed into passionate play of bondage and pain – activities that require unshakeable trust in one’s partner. This paradox, of trust and suspicion, of fascination and hate, forms Mr. Yee and Chia Chi’s relationship both inside and outside the bedroom. By engaging with one another, the two stand to lose significant possessions – Mr. Yee, his marriage and position; Chia Chi, her heart. And yet.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

It’s easy to see how this adaptation of Jane Austen’s earliest work, set in the 1800s, had most of its passion seen as ‘forbidden’. Even so, Sense and Sensibility has some of the most evocative – and melodramatic – depictions of romance. Take for instance, the growing companionship between Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thomson). The two share a deep affection for one another, affection that Elinor hopes will turn into something more. And so when Elinor happens to meet Lucy Steele who claims to be Edawards’s fiance, she is heartbroken. This unrequited passion culminates in a scene in which Edward visits Elinor’s house to tell her that Lucy had decided to marry his brother (who now has a fortune to his name). Elinor’s face erupts in relief and anger, the time she had spent yearning for him finally finding release. Elinor’s sister Marianne shares a similar, if not more arduous, passion for the charming John Willoughby. Their romance gets a fairytale beginning – her hurting her ankle in the rain, him carrying her back home – only to end with both lovers in different marriages. Willoughby, running away from heinous sins and a penniless future, abandons Marianne despite loving her. Marianne, knowing his true nature, still walks through torrential rain at the cost of her own life, just to be able to see him. 

Wedding Banquet (1993)

Wedding Banquet is perhaps Lee’s earliest and most lighthearted stab at forbidden passion. It revolves around Wai Tung (Winston Chao), whose traditional Taiwanese parents would probably drop dead if they knew that he lives with his boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) in New York City. When the pressure to marry becomes unbearable, Wai Tung asks a tenant in need of a green card, Wei-Wei (May Chin), to marry him. Wei-Wei takes an unabashed liking to Wai Tung, turning the weird arrangement even weirder. Wrapped in humour, Lee presents evocative forms of yearning – all of them invalidated in the eyes that count most. Simon remains on the outskirts of a lavish wedding, the fanfare a reminder of something he will never share with Wai Tung. Wei-Wei – who takes up the position Simon is so envious of – finds herself in a unique predicament, fated to forever be the wife but never the lover. 

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