NEW YORK — IT'S easy to list the main ingredients of Ang Lee's artistic career: film, family, and food.
Lee first cultivated these interests in his native Taiwan, and delved more deeply into them while studying theater and cinema at two American universities.
Now an acclaimed filmmaker with admirers on both sides of the Pacific, he's still fascinated with the vicissitudes of family life and the satisfactions of culinary skill. Not surprisingly, these are at the heart of all his movies - including ``The Wedding Banquet,'' which captivated American audiences last year, and ``Eat Drink Man Woman,'' now opening in US theaters after a well-received debut at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Lee discovered movies in Taiwan, where he grew up watching Chinese melodramas and Hollywood pictures with subtitles. His cinematic style is offbeat and eclectic, reflecting these varied influences - much as Chinese cooking incorporates a wealth of ingredients and techniques pragmatically borrowed from other national cuisines.
``Food is a serious matter in Chinese culture,'' the filmmaker told me in a recent interview. ``I guess it has something to do with being an agricultural society in the past.... It's a big nation with a combination of hundreds of races, so the melting pot is always there - in food, music, culture, costume. It's always changing, and for the past 200 years Western influences have been tremendous.... Food is something we [Chinese] can be proud of and sell to the whole world.''
While his own love for food started in childhood, thanks to a food-loving father and a talented cook who lived with his family, he stayed out of the kitchen until he arrived in the US and had trouble adjusting to American cuisine. He honed his kitchen skills during the six years it took to get his first movie project off the ground.
Making food is not very different from making films, in Lee's opinion. ``Cooking is very comforting and relaxing to me,'' he says. ``It's similar to any creative art, like directing. You get ingredients, you foresee some kind of taste or product, and you execute it with skill and the right proportion and color. When your family swallows it, you feel you're taking care of them. And then you wait for a response, like in a theater.''
This explains why Lee takes particular delight in films about cooking - like his new ``Eat Drink Man Woman,'' a thoughtful comedy dealing with a modern Taiwanese family that's held loosely together by food-related activities. ``It's very satisfying to make a movie that makes people feel hungry,'' says Lee with a smile. ``It's pure cinema, beyond language, universal. People all over the world intuitively respond to it.''
Lee's other preoccupation, family life, has roots in his own experience and in his observations of Chinese society.
``I've always been very close to family life,'' he says. ``I grew up in a very stable and happy family, and then I formed one of my own. Seeing how a family changes has made me sensitive to how life and society and values change. Seeing people grow older and mature and have children tells me things about time, in a philosophical and sensuous way.''
Family structure also makes a good microcosm for observing social changes, Lee continues.
``For thousands of years,'' he says, ``the feudal and agricultural Chinese society was based on family as a unit. What held us together was filial piety and social rank. Filial piety was the first and utmost moral virtue - you were somebody's son more than your own self. This has changed recently, and things are breaking apart. Family values and personal, social, political values are getting chaotic. We're moving toward a democratic world, and people do whatever they want, irrespective of each other.''
Lee explores this situation on a miniature scale in his movies about family life. ``The father always stands for the head of the old patriarchal society,'' he explains, ``the monopoly force that's facing a change in the modern world. He's confused and struggling [because] each movie has some force that's deconstructing the family - in `The Wedding Banquet' it's the challenge of a son being gay, and in `Eat Drink Man Woman' it's the different romance of each of the three daughters. At the end they find a new energy in life, and that's ... my blessing on them all.''
Do the changes and pressures of contemporary life spell turbulence and unhappiness for the future, or does Lee believe things will evolve in positive directions?
``I don't make a judgment on this,'' he replies. ``As an artist, I try to show things and reach people's feelings, and let them make up their own minds.... But history is moving forward, I think, and there's no way to go back - to repress sexual preference, or to think women should rank beneath men.... You have to make adjustments even if it's painful.
``I do the same thing in my life,'' he adds with another smile. ``I treat my parents in one way - the older way - and I treat my kids in a different, American way. Sometimes it can be a problem when all of us are in one room, and I get pulled between!''