The pithy answer might be: Large, angry, green men. Yes, Lee's "Hulk" was not well received. But in his incredibly varied filmography, Lee has steadily steered films that could very well have turned disastrous into box-office hits and Oscar bait.
Combining martial arts with drama? "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" became the highest grossing foreign language film ever, more than double any previous foreign film. A film about gay cowboys? "Brokeback Mountain" went on to be nominated for eight Oscars, winning three including best director.
Few filmmakers have been so drawn to such delicate material where even slight shifts in tone or execution could mean the difference between a hit or a flop. That couldn't be truer for Lee's new film, "Life of Pi," a supreme balancing act for a filmmaker accustomed to working on tightropes.
In an interview the day after "Life of Pi" premiered at the New York Film Festival in September, Lee sat down with obvious relief. Asked how he was doing, Lee exhaled: "Better than I thought."
The first screening had gone well: the 3-D "Life of Pi" was greeted as a success and immediately added to the Oscar race. For even Lee, knowing which side of the sword a film of his will fall isn't clear until the first audience sees it.
"I've been holding this anxiety for a long time. It's an expensive movie," says Lee. "It's really like the irrational number of pi. For a long time it felt that way -- not making sense."
"Life of Pi," which 20th Century Fox will release Wednesday, contains, Lee says, "all the no's" of filmmaking: kid actors, live animals and oceans of water. It's adapted from Yann Martel's best-selling 2001 novel, in which a deadly shipwreck maroons a boy (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
Not only does filming such a tale involve considerable challenges, the story is ultimately a spiritual journey -- and matters of God and faith are far from typical blockbuster fodder. For those reasons and others, the project went through several previously attached directors, including Alfonso Cuaron, M. Night Shyamalan and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Lee, then, was a kind of savior, one of few directors capable of corralling all the difficult elements of "Life of Pi." His imprimatur helps carry it, given that the cast is one of unknowns (Sharma, only 17 when cast, hadn't previously acted), digital creations (a combination of real tigers and digital effects were used) and international actors (Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu).
Tobey Maguire, who starred in Lee's "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil," was initially meant to give the film a dose of star power, but he was recast (with Rafe Spall) after proving an awkward fit.
Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000 Pictures, calls the film -- whose budget exceeded $100 million -- a huge gamble. The international cast and the PG-13 rating, Gabler says, will hopefully make "Life of Pi" "an international adventure for people of all ages."
"Why do I dare, a Chinese director, do Jane Austen when I still speak pigeon English?" Lee says, referring to his 1995 film "Sense and Sensibility." "It's still a leap of faith, you're taking a risk. Every movie is unknown. If it's known, then no studio would lose money."
Lee was born and raised in Taiwan, where he initially pursued acting. Artistic endeavor in '60s and '70s Taiwan, he says, was considered a low profession and not the choice of his father. Ever since, patriarchs have been a connecting tissue in Lee's protean filmography. Responding to a comment that father figures -- including one in "Life of Pi" -- have often been focal points in his films, Lee corrects: "I think always."
"I never rebelled against him but he told me what I do is," he says. "The father figure is something I love, but also suffocate from and want to work against. My mother loves me and everything goes well. I have no conflict with her, so that's not dramatic."
Lee emigrated from Taiwan to attend college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then film school at New York University. The 58-year-old still lives in the New York area, the Westchester suburbs, with his wife and two sons.
His first three films, all in Mandarin and revolving around Chinese families, were followed by a distinct break with "Sense and Sensibility," his Hollywood arrival. But it was 1997's "The Ice Storm," an adaptation of Rick Moody's novel about a Connecticut family's disaster in the swinging '70s, that Lee says changed his perception of filmmaking and set him on a new path.
"A movie is really provocation," says Lee. "It's not a message, it's not a statement. Before I thought: I have a story to tell, not even thinking of myself as an auteur. But that is a precious lesson to me, to take a step back -- a respectful step back."
"Something about cinema, how it works in wonders, you just have to respect it," he adds. "You should never believe fully like you know."
"Life of Pi" was certainly full of its own lessons and trials. Lee spent a year making a 70-minute pre-visual animation of the middle chunk of the film set at sea. He had a giant water tank built in an abandoned airport in his native Taiwan, ("Taiwan will do anything for me," he joked at the NYFF). Still, because of the considerable technical challenges, he says he only got an eighth of his planned shot list.
He was led to 3-D not by James Cameron's "Avatar," which was released after planning on "Life of Pi" began, but by searching for "another dimension" to tell such a story. The results, achieved with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, are perhaps the best 3-D work since "Avatar," including a memorable flying fish scene and the glorious visuals of a whale surfacing in moonlight.
For the film's young star, the gentle, humble, self-deprecating Lee was a mentor.
"He makes you so calm that you just let him mold you into whatever he wants to mold you into," Sharma says. "He really showed me that I could do a lot more than I ever thought I was capable of doing."
Lee may be "a Zen master" like Sharma claims, but his tranquility won't abide one thing: Anyone who doesn't cherish the precious chance to make a movie. "If you don't give 100 percent, I get mad," he says.
It's enough of an all-consuming process that Lee doesn't contemplate his next film until he has seen through the present one.
He says: "I'm still surviving this one."