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Up From Obscurity

A junior high school photo shows internationally famed film director Ang Lee at age 15 in this Saturday, March 4, 2006 photo in Tainan, central Taiwan. Today Ang 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. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)
AP Photo
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.