Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ Causes Culture Clash in Taiwan

Guest Blog: Politicians in Taiwan got into some hot water by complaining about lousy product placement in the film helmed by their hometown boy

Last Updated: May 1, 2012 @ 11:34 AM

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" was shot partially on location in Taiwan, the director's homeland. Water scenes were shot in both the southern part of the island, with its curving beaches, crystal clear water and sunsets, and in a specially built "water tank" in the bustling central Taiwan city of Taichung.

And that's where the local politicians got into some hot water of their own by complaining about lousy product placement in the final film helmed by their hometown boy.

"Life of Pi" is about an Indian boy adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger.

The 57-year-old Lee, who lives in New York, was hailed as the "the pride of Taiwan" after winning an Oscar in 2005 for directing "Brokeback Mountain" and is the first Asian filmmaker to receive an Academy Award for Best Director.

Two city councilors criticized the local government after the first publicity still for "Life of Pi" was released in April, saying that the image shown did not show any connection to Taichung.

Well, the film is a Hollywood film, and it's set in India and in ocean waters — and based on Yann Martel's bestselling book of the same title.

The local pols were miffed because the city government offered Lee's production team almost $2 million in hopes of promoting their fair city and getting some good PR in return when tourists might visit the location sets to see "where Ang Lee's movie was shot."

But the publicity still that they saw didn't even show one street or building or tree or scenic view in Taichung, and they wanted their money back, figuratively speaking. Not understanding how Hollywood works, they thought that by offering some money to the production team, the city would benefit directly with increased tourist traffic and revenue.

But that's not how movies work, alas.

The still image released to the media here showed a man and a tiger in a boat, which is what the movie is about, but the still didn't showcase the city of Taichung at all. The local city councillors, not being film-savvy production mavens, felt they didn't get their money's worth. They didn't say it like this exactly, but their feelings, as expressed to reporters in Taiwan in April, was "We was robbed!"

Later, the politicians, whose initial hot-under-the-collar comments got them in some trouble with film critics and production people in Taipei, who know how movies work, took back their comments and said they never intended to besmirch the reputation of director Lee and that they fully supported his new movie. To cover their asses and mend fences, they emphasized that they were only concerned that taxpayers' money had been well spent.

They said that they had hoped that scenic images of Taichung would be included in Lee's film, due to be released worldwide in December, and added that they felt this would be an effective way of attracting visitors to the city.

The two pols were inundated with critical comments on their blogs, and several newspaper critics took them to task for speaking not only out of turn but also out of ignorance of how films are made and how PR and publicity stills work.

A photoshopped spoof of the publicity still has also been circulating online in Taiwan, in which a suncake — a pastry that is a Taichung tourist specialty — has been added in the movie tiger's mouth to ridicule the city councilors' comments.

The city government, for its part, apologized to Ang Lee and his team and admitted that the misunderstanding was likely caused by people unfamiliar with the virtual sound studio in Taichung used for the film. In addition, the mayor of Taichung, the well-travelled and urbane Jason Hu, who once served as Taiwan's ambassador in Washington and knows the ins and outs of Hollywood, told the two city councillors to be more careful with their public comments, noting that ''nobody from overseas will come to make films in Taichung if conditions are imposed that images related to the city are included in each production."

In the end, it was a big cross-cultural hullabaloo about nothing, and it's all over now. All's well that ends well. Especially with movies.

Lee was in Taichung in December to shoot about two-thirds of the film in his home country, mostly in central and southern Taiwan. According to Lee, more than a hundred international film crew members who he had worked with in the United States came to Taiwan for the location scouting and shooting.

In a speech in December to local college students, Lee said: "I want to find a new way of speaking and narrating in film, and 3D could be a good way. It's very challenging to shoot a movie in 3D because the technology is still very new and nobody really understands it. I've always wanted to challenge myself. I may look like a gentle person from the outside, but I like challenges more than anyone else."


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