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Giant-killers at generous Oscar night

-Ben Affleck and Ang Lee lead the comeback field

Feb. 25: When the Oscars voters decided to slip into the share-the-wealth mode, the biggest beneficiaries were two underdogs who battled adversity to pull off upsets.

The honours were spread among a range of films, with Argo winning three trophies but Life of Pi leading with four. Life of Pi, a surprise blockbuster, tells the story of a shipwrecked Indian boy sharing his small boat with a ferocious tiger.

Taiwanese director Ang Lee pulled off a huge upset with Life of Pi, the second Academy Award for best director thrusting him into the top ranks of world film-makers and making him a national hero on this diplomatically isolated island.

“I never thought I’d be back here. And I am,” producer-director Ben Affleck said in accepting the best picture trophy on Sunday night, 15 years after he won an original screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting and then saw his career fall into a tailspin that included Gigli and Daredevil.

Affleck spoke about how the tide turned. “It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life. That’s going to happen,” said Affleck, who wasn’t nominated for directing Argo, one of nine films in the best picture race. “All that matters is that you’ve got to get up.”

But it was not the evening’s most recognised film: That honour went to Lee’s Life of Pi, which won four Oscars — for directing, visual effects, cinematography and score.

“Thank you, movie god,” said Lee, whose movie came into the evening with 11 nominations, one behind Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Lee’s victory at Hollywood’s annual Oscar extravaganza on Sunday for the fantasy epic, Life of Pi, followed his 2005 directorial win for Brokeback Mountain.

Lee, too, spoke of the challenges he had faced. “I think sometimes this disadvantage can be an advantage. The fact that I come from another culture makes me special,” he said encouraging Asian and other non-American filmmakers to take on Hollywood.

Lee called it “a miracle” that he could make Life of Pi, a film that occupied him for four years before it hit the big screen and culminated with his surprising win for best director at the Oscars.

“It was a very sweet moment for me,” he said backstage. “It’s a miracle that I could make this movie,” Lee said. “I carried the anxiety for a very long time, four years. It’s a philosophical book and expensive movie, a scary combination.”

“The bad news is it’s too expensive. It’s very hard," he said. “Once it gets cheaper and easier, more filmmakers are going to dive into it. I see there’s quite a brilliant future in it. I will try again if I can afford it.”

The Taiwan-born Lee who grew up watching American movies thanked his home country, where he said 90 per cent of the film was shot.

“They gave us a lot of physical help and financial help,” he said. “I’m glad that Taiwan contributed this much to the film. I feel like this movie belongs to the world.”

Lee recalled how he only spoke broken English when he made Sense and Sensibility in 1995, his first mainstream Hollywood film.

“You can overcome cultural barriers, but you have to be diligent,” he said.

Lee was reminded backstage that Sunday was the last night of the Chinese New Year, a 15-day celebration.

“This is a great night for me and everybody who liked the movie, particularly in Asia,” he said. “I wish them a happy new year of the snake, everybody gets lucky.”

News of Lee’s triumph electrified Taiwanese, many of whom watched a live TV broadcast of the event. 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 amid civil war more than six decades ago — Taiwan has been on the outer fringes of the international community. It is now recognised 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 towards the world”.

Making Lee’s Oscar win even sweeter was Taiwan’s key role in the production of Life of Pi. 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.