Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 17:46 UK

Lee brings light touch to Cannes

By Victoria Lindrea
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Cannes

Taking Woodstock
Taking Woodstock's cast includes Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano

"In comedy, if you don't make people laugh, you've failed. If it's a drama, you can just claim they didn't get it!"

Perhaps this explains why director Ang Lee has made six tragedies over the last 13 years.

Plus, everyone knows comedies don't win prizes, and the Oscar-winning director has certainly had his fair share of high-profile awards.

But this year, Lee is a contender for the Palme d'Or with the comedy Taking Woodstock - a film which looks at the infamous 1969 music festival - featuring Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead among many other 60s icons - and how it became a defining cultural flashpoint for a generation of Americans.

Ang Lee on the set of Taking Woodstock
Lee set up a "hippy bootcamp" to educate the cast about their characters

Directed by Lee, it is based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, who inadvertently brought the festival to a small town in upstate New York while trying to find new custom for his parents run-down motel.

"I was yearning to do a comedy," Lee told reporters in Cannes. "After 13 years I felt I had earned the right to be happy, relaxed and at peace with myself."

Innocence lost

In some ways the film can be viewed as a prequel to his tragic drama The Ice Storm, the only of Lee's films to appear in competition here at Cannes.

The Ice Storm, set in 1973, was viewed by Lee as "the hangover from the 60s".

"Taking Woodstock is the beautiful night before, and the last moments of innocence".

"It marked the moment a generation departed form the old establishment in search of a fairer way to live," says Lee

"You have to give those half a million kids credit. They had three days of peace and music. Nothing violent happened. I don't know if we can pull that off today."

Woodstock 1969
Axe - Any musical instrument
Ball - Sexual intercourse
Bread - Money
Freak - Insider's term for hippy
Fuzz - Police
Gas - Sublime
Lid - An ounce of marijuana
Ripped - Under the influence
Roach - A joint

To recreate the summer of love vibe for his film, Lee set up a flower power bootcamp, complete with a hippy handbook detailing common terms such as 'roach' (joint) and 'fuzz' (police).

But the biggest obstacle was finding convincing extras - actors without over-toned bodies and with pubic hair.

This is nudity, 60s-style.

"That encapsulates the difference of 40 years right there," says writer and producer James Schamus.

US stand-up comedian Demetri Martin plays Tiber, a young man struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and assert his own identity, brow-beaten by his overbearing mother (a superb Imelda Staunton) and ailing father (Henry Goodman).

His story operates as the film's focal point, while the actual Woodstock Festival provides the backdrop. But Lee insists that, unlike his award-winning drama Brokeback Mountain, this is not another film about homosexuality.

"I hope people respond [to Elliot's struggle], but it's a small part of the big story," says Lee. "Inside we are all complicated."

Ang Lee
Lee was Oscar-nominated for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

And just as this is not a 'gay film', Lee himself strives to avoid being pigeon-holed.

"I hate to be categorised - by genre, by nationality, as a film-maker," says the 54-year-old Taiwanese director.

In many ways, it makes him the opposite of many of the auteurs who grace the competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Directors like Tarantino and Almodovar bring a unique motif to all their work, but Lee displays a chameleon-like ability to dissolve into different genres and cultural settings.

Time will tell which the jury prefers, although comedies are always a long-shot (Robert Altman's Mash was the last out-and-out comedy to take the Palme d'Or).

For his part, Lee remains determinedly relaxed about the competition: "Of course I am anxious, but if people like it, I am a happy man."

The director, it seems, is just "going with the flow". Must be that hippy camp.

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