Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Breaking the "Ice"

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  NEW YORK -- Ang Lee knew he was in the clear when, at The Ice Storm's first showing before an American audience, no one burst out laughing as a character is accidentally electrocuted.

"They were deadly quiet," he says, no pun intended. "So that's a sign -- they didn't giggle -- that's a sign they were riveted to the movie. I think it played quite effectively. We went to Cannes, which is a big audience. Very enthusiastic. But this is the first American, native, group reaction. I heard some sobbing. I heard a lot of laughing. They seemed to be in synch with the movie."

Lee was relieved that the audience bought not only the film's emotional veracity but its period authenticity. Set in America's wife-swapping suburbs in 1973, in the wake of the sexual revolution and during the crumbling of the Nixon administration, The Ice Storm is terra incognita for Lee -- who didn't relocate to America from his native Taiwan until 1978 -- but not for much of its intended audience. The care and thoroughness he expended in re-creating the spirit, culture, clothing, and decor might bring a twinge of déjà vu to anyone who survived that benighted era.

Some of the trappings he could relate to. "Like the metal ice trays. Remember how your hands get stuck in one of those? That was nostalgic for me. But I don't know where they got most of that stuff. The toe socks, I think, came from Pennsylvania. But the pharmacy. How the hell did they dress the whole pharmacy with period things?"

Mostly, though, it was by relating to the characters that Lee was able to get in tune. "I felt close to Mikey, the spaced-out kid. I remember directing Elijah Wood and saying, 'Your speech is not right, it's too clear, too articulated. You're two seconds behind everyone. Try to loosen up here a little bit, let your jaw slacken when you talk.' And he got the idea right away.

"That was me as a kid. I was very spaced out. My feet barely touched the ground. So I related to him. Beyond that, I felt closest to Kevin. It's my fear of being an American father in a modern world. I was raised like his character in the '50s. Sexually, socially, politically, our upbringing was very similar: conservative. Family's good for you, do the right thing, be a family man. And all of a sudden the social code says you're supposed to level with your kid. You have to explain things, not just shout your orders. I had to act like a parent, someone they can look up to as a role model, but on the inside I'm less than a kid. So I very much identify with Kevin. In my older Chinese movies, such as Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet, I used my father as the father role. Here I am the father."

Lee could identify with Kline's character in being befuddled by society's changing sexual mores. "The sexual revolution caught up in Taiwan 10 or 15 years later. So the '70s hit them in the late '80s, probably. I was reading just the other day in a Chinese newspaper they found this Web site and people use it for wife-swapping. I think to a certain degree the first lines in the movie Jerry McGuire are quite true. He says America sets the tone for the world. Sooner or later it hits everywhere, it's just the pace of human civilization. So what happened in 1973 in Connecticut happened in 1969 in California or New York and in '85 in Taiwan, and, I don't know, 2001 in Iran."

-- Peter Keough


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