Ang Lee

Ang Lee: A Never-Ending Dream

“In 1978, as I applied to study film at the University of Illinois, my father vehemently objected. He quoted me a statistic: ‘Every year, 50,000 performers compete for 200 available roles on Broadway.’ Against his advice, I boarded a flight to the U.S. This strained our relationship. In the two decades following, we exchanged less than a hundred phrases in conversation.

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. There’s an old Chinese saying: ‘At 30, one stands firm.’ Yet, I couldn’t even support myself. What could I do? Keep waiting, or give up my movie-making dream? My wife gave me invaluable support.

My wife was my college classmate. She was a biology major, and after graduation, went to work for a small pharmaceutical research lab. Her income was terribly modest. At the time, we already had our elder son, Haan, to raise. To appease my own feelings of guilt, I took on all housework – cooking, cleaning, taking care of our son – in addition to reading, reviewing films and writing scripts. Every evening after preparing dinner, I would sit on the front steps with Haan, telling him stories as we waited for his mother – the heroic huntress – to come home with our sustenance (income).

This kind of life felt rather undignified for a man. At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’

And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’

And today, I’ve finally won that golden statue. I think my own perseverance and my wife’s immeasurable sacrifice have finally met their reward. And I am now more assured than ever before: I must continue making films.

You see, I have this never-ending dream.”

** Written by Ang Lee after winning an Oscar for Best Director for “Brokeback Mountain”  in 2006. Translated by Irene Shih. 

It was my dear friend Jas Wong who shared this touching reflection with me.

I could not believe what I was reading. I never imagined that someone as undeniably talented as Ang Lee could struggle with his talent, and almost give up on his dream.

When I first watched the trailer for Life of Pi, I thought no way is Ang Lee going to attempt to make Yann Martel‘s novel into a film. It was impossible! Life of Pi is so abstract and philosophical. How is a movie going to capture that, without turning it into a boring chronological narrative?

You see, I’m the sort of person who prefers the original book version of stories to movies. If I love a book, I can’t watch the movie. It always spoils it for me.

But I was curious about Life of Pi, simply because it was so impossible to translate into a movie. And because Ang Lee was attempting it, I decided to buy a movie ticket.

I remember walking out of the movie theatre, and tweeting this: Life of Pi will get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Ang Lee will win Best Director.

But until quite recently, Ang Lee doubted himself. He doubted his talent.

I am sure that looking forward, he never could imagine himself being successful as an Asian filmmaker in Hollywood, let alone holding an Academy Award in his hand. Twice.

And this reminds me of one of the most powerful and life-changing quotes I’ve read. It’s by the late Steve Jobs, at Stanford University’s commencement speech in 2005.


For Ang Lee, I say thank God for his wife. Thank God someone believed in him enough to remind him, “Don’t forget your dream.”

There will always be people who put us down, who scoff at our dreams, and try to convince us that we won’t make it.

I was again shocked that one of my favourite writers of all time faced that too. His story was mentioned by Sir Ken Robinson in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

“Sometimes, of course, your loved ones genuinely think you would be wasting your time and talents doing something of which they disapprove. This is what happened to Paulo Coelho. Mind you, his parents went further than most to put him off.  They had him committed repeatedly to a psychiatric institution and subjected to electroshock therapy because they loved him.

The reason Coelho’s parents institutionalized him was that he had a passionate interest as a teenager in becoming a writer. Pedro and Lygia Coelho believed it was a waste of time. They suggested he could do a bit of writing in his spare time if he felt the need to dabble in such a thing, but his real future lay in becoming a lawyer. 

When Coelho continued to pursue the arts, his parents felt they had no choice but to commit him to a mental institution to drive these destructive notions from his head. ‘They wanted to help me,’ Coelho has said. ‘They had their dreams. I wanted to do this and that but my parents had different plans for my life’.”

Coelho’s parents put him in an asylum three times. Yet not even such an extreme approach to intervention stopped Paulo Coelho from finding his Element. In spite of of the intense family opposition, he continued to pursue writing.

TheAlchemistPaulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988) is one of my favourite books of all time. It turned out to be a major international bestseller, selling more than 20 million copies around the world.

Coelho’s books have also been translated into more than 60 languages. And by far, he is the most successful Portuguese-language writer in the history of the world.

As Sir Ken Robinson put it so succinctly, Paulo would probably have made an excellent lawyer. He was capable of it. But his dream was to write.

And I think I’m not the only one who is thankful that he kept his focus on his Element, and pursued his dream, against all odds.

If people like Paulo Coelho and Ang Lee did not stay true to themselves, and what they believed they were created to do, I believe our world would be a little less. We would never have been touched by the beauty of their storytelling, or moved by the power of their special gift.

And so I say: Stay true to yourself. Don’t forget your dream.