His compatriots call Ang Lee "the treasure of Taiwan" for his success in bridging cultural barriers and becoming one of the few Asian film directors to make it big in Hollywood.
On Monday afternoon — Sunday night in Hollywood — thousands of Taiwanese will tune in to see if this 51-year-old native son can come away with the coveted "Best Director" Oscar for his highly acclaimed gay love story, "Brokeback Mountain."
The film, buoyed by sterling reviews and vibrant hometown pride, has been a surprise box-office hit on this socially conservative island, attracting the kind of crowds usually reserved for big-budget kung-fu movies and other action thrillers.
Lee left Taiwan for the United States at the age of 23, but many locals still see him as one of their own. His trademark gentle smile and shy demeanor are regarded as hallmarks of the educated Chinese gentleman, for whom the Confucian values of modesty and high achievement reign supreme.
"Taiwanese talents have long exported computers and other technologies to the world, but Ang Lee is among a rare few who have excelled in the field of culture and arts," said Taiwanese director Chen Yao-chi.
Chen and others laud Lee for moving beyond the action genre that occupies the handful of Asian directors who have gained a Hollywood foothold.
A number of Japanese have already established themselves in the United States and a few mainland Chinese are also knocking on the door, but most are kung-fu specialists. In contrast, Lee has been able to bring his subtle, Oriental touch to a wide range of prototypical Western themes.
Besides "Brokeback Mountain," Lee has also tackled English period-drama with "Sense and Sensibility." In "The Ice Storm," he explored moral ambiguities in 1970s suburban America. He brought the comic-book character The Hulk to the big screen. And his "Ride with the Devil" revolves around renegade southern fighters in the Civil War era.
His highly acclaimed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was one of his few Chinese endeavors in recent years.
In some ways, "Brokeback Mountain" is a distinctly un-Chinese movie, focusing on the gay relationship between two American cowboys in the conservative American West. But it also possesses a Chinese aesthetic that distinguishes it from most American films.
Visual tableaux like the distant visage of headlights caught against an isolated mountain dawn seem the cinematic equivalent of a Chinese landscape painting from the imperial era.
The incremental buildup to the cowboys' love affair — fleeting glances fraught with unspoken passion, minute gestures of heart wrenching tenderness — contains the understated communication typically found in classical Chinese poetry.
Chen said the signal achievement of "Brokeback Mountain" was to bridge the gap between East and West, calling it an "outstanding cross-cultural performance."
Lee's brother, Taiwanese director Lee Kang, said his brother retains the Chinese traits of displaying a tenacity amid gentle, kind and polite behavior.
"He's true to himself, but he's also a rebellious person" who constantly reflects on himself and looks deep into social events, he said.
Liao I-mei, a Taiwanese office worker, said she was deeply touched by "Brokeback Mountain" for portraying the gay cowboys as ordinary lovers, not perverts.
"Ang Lee made me realize that being gay is not a crime," she said. "If my husband fell into the same situation with another man, I possibly could be more understanding."