Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors, and although he doesn’t direct movies in the horror genre, I will always sing his prays. I spent a lot of my childhood sitting in front of a television, and it was there I discovered the magic in foreign films. I found that, unlike western movies, they were untamed, less Hollywood, and often depicted people doing things that were human at its core but forbidden in contemporary western cinema. Children who grew up in the Caribbean were sandwich between American influences, Caribbean culture, and the vast continent to the east. Most Caribbean countries that were once British colonies or still tied to Britannia were in some ways always brushing up against British and European cinema. At the same time, those living in old French colonies or territories that once belonged to the Netherlands also suffered a similar faith. In saying this, I wanted to express how varied the type of television shows and movies were across Caribbean islands.
The first movie I saw from Ang Lee was Eat Drink Man Woman, which was an exceedingly early sampling of his work. It was one of the first few foreign films that my childish mind absorbed and was intrigued by but couldn’t understand why. Other films from his filmography that were more popular were Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Hulk, Life of Pi, and Gemini Man. These are some of his most famous films ranging from full-scale Hollywood action to a British classic. Lee is a Taiwanese-born director whose directing style doesn’t box him into one genre as he seems at home directing big action pack movies or a Jane Austen adaptation. While I cannot claim to love his complete catalog, he excels when he makes movies about raw human emotions touching on topics mundane or taboo. The two films that stand out as the ultimate examples of his talent are Brokeback Mountain and Lust Caution.
I often wonder how many people have watched Brokeback Mountain and really spent time pulling back the curtains on this masterpiece. I can still remember the jokes and shock that this movie provoked, but I think back then, people who were not into storytelling or the film industry rarely gave this movie a chance. Perhaps I can only speak for the community that surrounded me at the time this movie was released, but homophobic comments and hate were common. I remember being in rooms when this film’s trailer would advertise on television and observing the sheer disgust and repulsion on the men’s faces in the room. While it was laughable, the shock and rage this movie caused in the adults around me made me curious.
In 2008 I bought the DVD out of curiosity and boredom and fell into watching Brokeback Mountain and ended the movie holding back tears but ultimately shock to the core. The way that Ang Lee fleshed out his characters and crafted the dismal environment that was Wyoming enveloped me. As I laid there watching, I went from the viewpoint of a voyeur to literally forgetting that I was watching two men develop an intimacy that was still frowned upon and closeted by many in 2008. The writing, acting, and cinematography was so captivating that the idea of gender norms slipped away from me! For me, it was a love story that had many undertones of reality, and it slowly became one of my classic melancholy romantic movies. For me, this film was up there with Pride and Prejudice, The Last Mistress, Atonement, Revolutionary Road, Moonlight, Anna Karenina, and many more.
The story surrounding Brokeback Mountain was so convincing that I thought it was based on a true story. After doing some research, I discovered that it was first published as a short story in 1997 by Annie Proulx.
She claimed that living in the rural northwest of America around cowboys and ranch workers led her to wonder about their lives. After going to a bar and seeing a middle-aged cowboy keening watching a ranch worker playing pool, she started wondering about the lives of these men who might be gay. So, over a period of 6 months, she crafted a story about Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist. Both men were hired one summer as sheepherders to live and work on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. While on the mountain, they formed an intense attachment that did not stay on the mountain. Over the course of 20 years, they got married, had children, bought homes, and lived lives that on the surface seemed “normal,” but secretly, they held on to a burning desire and love for each other. A few years after each man settled into family life, they started reuniting yearly under the guise of fishing and hunting trips. It was in those moments of reuniting on the mountain where they found their true selves. While what they were doing was deceitful, I remember feeling that their secret get-aways seem magical and freeing.
Dispite the passion in their union, I felt the suffocating pain and the failure of the characters to contemplate their existence. Ennis and Jack existed as creatures of habit, conditioned and programmed to follow an elusive blueprint. Their lives’ dismalness as they drifted from being sheepherders into marriage than having children was painful to watch. Even when Jack seems to have the courage to tell Ennis that he sees a world where they can be together, Ennis is too afraid to make a move. His fear is underpinned by an early memory of his father forcing him to gaze upon the mutilated body of a murdered gay rancher. Then the movie ends with Jack’s mysterious death leaving Ennis to wonder about what became of him. Ennis is then left imagining the worse has happened to his love even though he was told that his death was an accident.
Each character seemed to lack self-awareness, and for me, this type of living can genuinely be equated to a horror movie. They never stopped to question their existence or how much of their life they had control over. Similarly, the environment of rural Wyoming echoed the emptiness of lives passively lived. For me, Brokeback is a stirring reminder that many people and even myself at times is still sleeping their way through life, unaware or too afraid to break out of the mold. While the two men often imagine that they would one day be together, mentally and physically, they were tied to the ideas that society painted for them. They both had wives, children, and responsibilities that kept pushing their desire into a future that would never come. By the end of the film, as a viewer, you are starkly aware that Ennis and Jack were merely being dragged along without questioning their existence or why they had to live the life they did. While the outright homophobic behavior in society was the central theme, for me, the backdrop was littered with references on how ill-equipped we are to make changes that break from the norm.
This movie has become a favorite romantic film for me and others, even if its the sadness idea of escaping into someone else. The mountain might have been their physical refuge, but ultimately Jack and Ennis escaped into each other. Speaking to the power of love, some people would give anything to feel and experience the same embrace from someone who loves them unconditionally. Just like I believe that many of us are not even aware of our own existence, I believe finding love like this is very rare.
To Be Continued