Lee's victory at Hollywood's annual Oscar extravaganza on Sunday for the fantasy epic "Life of Pi" followed his 2005 win for "Brokeback Mountain." Garnering additional awards for visual effects, cinematography and original score, "Life of Pi" pulled down four Oscars, the most of any film this year.
News of Lee's triumph electrified Taiwanese, many of whom watched a live broadcast early Monday. It was not only the surprise nature of the directorial award — "Lincoln" director Steven Spielberg was considered the category's clear frontrunner — but the intense pride they felt at a native son making it big in the world at large.
Since losing most of its diplomatic allies to China in the 1970s and 1980s — the two sides split in a civil war more than six decades ago — Taiwan has been on the outer fringes of the international community. It is now recognized by only 23 countries — mostly impoverished and devoid of influence — and outside of information technology circles, its global footprint is small.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou saw Lee's triumph as at least a temporary reversal of those fortunes, thanking Lee for "pushing Taiwan toward the world."
"Taiwanese are proud of you," Ma said in a congratulatory message.
Making Lee's Oscar win even sweeter was Taiwan's key role in the production of "Life of Pi," which tells the story of a shipwrecked Indian boy sharing his small boat with a ferocious tiger. A majority of the film was shot at a specially constructed water tank in the central city of Taichung, and Taiwanese took many of the most important jobs in seeing the film to completion.
Taiwanese production team member Mike Yang said Lee had the total devotion of the Taichung crew.
"If he wanted us to make the wave bigger or the movement of the animated tiger more detailed, we were willing to cooperate, and not because he was Ang Lee but because he commanded respect," Yang said.
Born in the southern Taiwanese city of Pingtung in 1954, Lee went to the U.S. in 1979 to study filmmaking at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He burst into international prominence with "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995 and was nominated for best director for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which won the 2001 Oscar for best foreign language film.
Taiwan's film industry has been in the doldrums for more than two decades. Once seen as a world trendsetter for its subtle presentation of human interactions, it now languishes well behind other Asian cinemas, including those in South Korea and Hong Kong.
Lee also has a strong following in China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and Chinese movie critic Meng Yuankai congratulated Lee on his win. "It's pride for the ethnic Chinese group. Can't wait for the next production," he said in his Sina Weibo account.