Lee Ang's latest movie 'good to look at'

Film director Lee Ang, in his screening room in New York last month, has made Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 3D and at a high frame rate.
Film director Lee Ang, in his screening room in New York last month, has made Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 3D and at a high frame rate.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • In the action movies that Lee Ang grew up watching in Taiwan, it was perfectly commonplace and yet still thrilling to see rivals take to the air and fly at each other as they faced off in combat.

"People fly all the time," Lee, the Academy Award-winning director of Life Of Pi (2012), said a few days ago at his roomy, lived-in post-production suite in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York. "You don't need an explanation. When people do gongfu, they fly. It's exhilarating. You just go along with it."

Now, Lee, whose films include Sense And Sensibility (1995); Brokeback Mountain (2005) and his own martial-arts tale, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), is asking audiences to take a different leap of faith with his next project.

This new movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is adapted from the Ben Fountain novel about a young Army soldier who, while participating in the sensory overload of a football half-time show, relives his combat experience in the Iraq War and questions the mantle of bravery that has been thrust on him.

The movie, which will have its premiere at the New York Film Festival on Friday before its theatrical opening on Nov 11, is a story of war, heroism and perceptions of reality. Like many of Lee's movies, Billy Lynn is one that TriStar Pictures, the Sony division releasing it, expects will be a contender for major awards.

What distinguishes it even from Lee's idiosyncratic filmography is that he has made it in 3D and it will be shown - in theatres that can accommodate it - at 4K resolution and a rate of 120 frames a second, surpassing any previous major film release.

Asked why he wanted to make a sophisticated drama with a budget in the US$40-million (S$55-million) range at high-tech specifications more closely associated with blockbuster spectacles like The Hobbit movies, Lee could only shrug and ask, "Why me?"

"It's just good to look at," he said in his gentle, understated voice. "You look at it, you just get it."

But being one of the first film- makers to work in this format, the 61-year-old acknowledged, is "kind of painful, a little scary".

So far, wide audiences have not embraced higher frame rates, which can produce uncomfortably realistic images. That criticism was levelled at Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies (2012-2014). They were shown in certain theatres at 48 frames a second and some viewers felt they had been transported to a movie set, not to a fantasy world.

Rather than make "a fairy tale", Lee said, it was more logical to him to apply this technology to "a realistic drama - I think that's a more likely experiment, so to speak".

In particular, he said, the technology seemed well-suited to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk because it is about the shifting perspective of its title character (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn) in starkly different but intense situations: life-or-death combat in Iraq; an overwhelming Destiny's Child concert in a cavernous stadium; and a face-to-face confrontation with a ruthless National Football League team owner (Steve Martin).

For Lee, the hardest part of the shoot was not a war sequence or the half-time show, but the task of filming Martin in extreme close-up for his verbal face-off with Alwyn.

"I'm pretty good with bigger sequences - it's just work, you knock off the shots," Lee said. "No matter how complicated things are, nothing's more complicated than reading a human face, especially with this clarity."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'Lee Ang's latest movie 'good to look at''. Print Edition | Subscribe