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 moviemaking
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. 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
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
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.