'Life of Pi’s' Oscars give limelight to Taiwan

When Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for directing 'Life of Pi,' announced that he couldn’t have done the movie ‘without the help of Taiwan,’ the island cheered.

John Shearer, Invision/AP
Ang Lee poses with his award for best directing for 'Life of Pi' during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles.

When the hero of “Life of Pi” is staring desperately out at the endless, picturesque ocean as a shipwreck castaway somewhere between India and Mexico, he wasn’t actually there.

And when he and a Bengal tiger reach a palm-lined, white-sand Mexican beach after 227 days at sea without hurting each other, they weren’t actually there, either.

Like most of the film, those scenes were shot in Taiwan. And when Taiwan-born film director Ang Lee won an Oscar for best director Sunday and announced that he couldn’t have made the movie “without the help of Taiwan,” it brought a much-welcomed limelight to Taiwan, as local governments and the film industry attempt to beef up Taiwan's image as a site for movies.

“When Lee said he particularly thanked Taichung, I was really moved,” Taichung Mayor Jason Hu told reporters Monday in a phone interview. “Before the awards, Ang Lee had given me a call and said, ‘Mayor, if I win I will mention Taichung.’ “

“Life of Pi,” based on a 2001 novel by Yann Martel, is set in spots around the globe: castaway Pi’s homeland of India; the Pacific Ocean, where his family’s ship wrecks while relocating their zoo; Mexico, where he ends up; and Canada where he tells the story.

But Mr. Lee used his homeland to find the some 3,000 crew members and film some 75 percent of the movie. In addition to best director, Life of Pi was awarded Oscars for best cinematography, original score, and visual effects.

Big push to attract foreign film crews

Taiwanese cultural officials have long fought to attract foreign-based film crews, to help drive the economy.

The farming and industrial hub of Taichung put up $1.69 million for use of a defunct airport, including a wave pool that served as the cinematic ocean, a city spokesperson said. Taiwan’s central government added another $10.14 million to help cover the total cost, estimated at $120 million.

Taiwan has given subsidies to local filmmakers for more than 60 years to develop talent and, in earlier days, advance government views. Few local productions have reached the global acclaim of “Life of Pi,” though Lee says he hopes to promote tourism in Taiwan through film.

Filmmakers and cultural officials say the next step is to get more films to depict Taiwanese city skylines, so that they become recognizable.  “Life of Pi,” though it was filmed in Taiwan, does not explicitly “say” Taiwan.

“It’s not like 'Mission Impossible,' where you see someone jump off a landmark skyscraper in Shanghai,” says David Frazier, co-founder of Taiwan-based Urban Nomad Film Fest.

The island is known for varied landscapes and visible displays of traditional Chinese culture, and has a lot to offer filmmakers, say officials.

Taiwan should play up its hospitality toward film crews, says Zoe Tuan, general secretary of the Chinese Cross-Strait Film Association in Taipei.

She points to an example that happened during the filming of “Life of Pi.” The crew needed 450 fish for an ocean scene, she says, and Taiwanese fishermen quickly complied because they wanted to help, according to local news reports.

“Taiwan has a keen sense of hospitality, and for a director the film set can become a second home,” Ms. Tuan says.

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