Director Ang Lee preserves Chinese tradition on film sets

Ang Lee picks up the cinematography award for Claudio Miranda for his work on "Life of Pi" at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards in London.
(Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images)

Before production began on 20th Century Fox’s “Life of Pi,” director Ang Lee led his cast and crew through a Chinese ritual that has become a tradition marking the first day of each of his film shoots.

Arrayed on a table near a soundstage in Taichung, Taiwan, were offerings such as fruit, cakes, tea and flowers.

Lee lit incense and said prayers directed toward each of the four cardinal directions. Known as a “big luck” ceremony, it ended with the Oscar-winning director switching on a movie camera and striking a gong. Then the group ate the offerings presented on the table with the sweet scent of incense hanging in the air.


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“I really treasure that moment,” said Lee, recalling the January 2010 ceremony for “Pi,” the 3-D epic that is nominated for 11 Academy Awards and has become a surprise box office success around the world, generating more than $570 million in ticket sales. “You can really feel it. It’s a great way to gather everyone.”

Lee, who won an Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” said that he has always held the ceremony to mark the beginning of a new film — even early on in his career when he was unsure of how casts and crews would receive it.

When it came time to begin shooting the 1995 film “Sense and Sensibility,” the Taiwanese director’s fourth film, he worried that the mostly English cast and crew would balk at the “big luck” ritual.

“I was the only Chinese there. My producer James Schamus said, ‘You have to do it.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it,’ ” Lee recalled. “But we did a ceremony and people got a kick out of it.”

Lee, whose rigorous “Pi” promotional tour in Asia helped make the film a hit in countries such as China and Japan, said that the ceremony is not overtly religious — a point he emphasizes to casts and crews. “You pray to whoever is up there blessing us,” he said.


Though fruits and cakes are staples of Lee’s ceremony, the offering table isn’t restricted to such benign fare: When Lee can obtain a whole cooked pig, one is included.

Lee said that people enjoy the ceremony, but on more than one occassion it has left a crew member unsettled.

“Crews are asking, ‘Do we have to do this every day?’ ” he said, laughing.


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