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Up From Obscurity

There are no horses. Men don't wear cowboy hats. And pickup trucks don't rumble down dusty roads.

Director Ang Lee's southern Taiwan hometown is worlds away from the panoramic American West on display in "Brokeback Mountain," the film favored to win him an Oscar for best director on Sunday.

But, just as the film's gay ranch hands struggled in conservative 1960's Wyoming, Lee, who could be the first Asian to win the directing honor, never totally fit in to Taiwan's authoritarian environment and pressure-cooker education system, according to friends and acquaintances encountered on a tour of Tainan.

Tainan is in this tiny island's rice-growing region. It's a traditional city famous for its Chinese temples with curved red tile roofs. And it's a place where a boy is supposed to devote most of his childhood to studying for the grueling college entrance exams in Taiwan's hyper-competitive education system.

Lee studied in classrooms packed with tiny chairs and desks. The only relief from the sweltering, sticky heat was rotating-blade fans hanging from the ceiling.

He attended Tainan First Senior High School, a small cluster of low-rise brick buildings. The students still wear uniforms with khaki pants and short-sleeved shirts embroidered with the school name, the same outfit that Lee once donned.

His class photo shows him with a crew cut that's shorter than his classmates'.

Classmate George Wang recalled that Lee shied away from overly physical activity. He said Lee was an above-average, but unremarkable student. Lee always found time for reading novels outside the curriculum, and watching movies.

One frequent hangout was the Chin Men Theater, a three-storied yellow building that still uses hand-painted movie posters and runs old film projectors that are a half-century old. Chin Men proudly pays tribute to its famous alumnus with a large poster featuring Lee's picture.

In high school, Lee was studying both for academic success and family honor: His father was his school's headmaster.

He applied himself in school, but kept up his interest in the arts. He drew comics and sang soprano in the choir, said his younger brother, Lee Kang, who works in TV production and film distribution.

But Ang Lee flunked his college entrance exams twice, a colossal disgrace for his family and a failure that dooms many young Taiwanese to mediocre careers.

"The only purpose of life was to get into college. Because our father was the principal, the other people in his social circle were principals, teachers. There was indirect pressure. They would ask, 'What colleges did Ang and Kang get into?"' Lee Kang recounted.

Ang Lee recovered by passing an easier exam that got him into the theater and film program at the National Arts School, a vocational school, not a full-fledged university.

But his new theatrical pursuits did little to buffer the disappointment of his earlier failure.

"Back then people thought the National Arts School was for people who had bad grades and handsome boys and pretty girls," close friend Chang Cheng-liang said. "His father couldn't really accept this."

Lee's late father, Lee Sheng, is often described as a disciplinarian and scholar who practiced Chinese calligraphy and made his sons study ancient Chinese texts during summer holidays.

The household's dinnertime conversation would instantly lighten up when Lee Sheng left, said Chang, who ate frequently with the family.

In the end, Lee Sheng supported his older son's decision to attend the National Arts School, on the condition that he study abroad after finishing, which he did, leading to degrees from the University of Illinois and New York University.

At the arts academy, by his own account, Ang Lee was reborn, finally able to discover and pursue his love of the performing arts.

"My soul was liberated for the first time," he wrote in his autobiography.

Lee's friends said he was able to bounce back from his early academic failures because of his strong determination. The same qualities served him well when he was struggling to break into the movie business.

Lee, 51, was a house husband for six years in the U.S. while his microbiologist wife supported the family.

"He could really suck up his grievances. He was very patient," Chang said, noting he had never seen Lee throw a temper tantrum.

Former math teacher Huang Chung-chia said Lee always had self-respect.

"Fundamentally, he thinks movies are a good thing, so he won't feel that he's taking a path less respected by society. He didn't feel this way," Huang said.

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