LOS ANGELES - Ang Lee seems poised to go where even Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa never went: The winner's circle for best director at the Academy Awards.
A win March 5 for front-runner Lee, director of the cowboy romance "Brokeback Mountain," would make him the first Asian filmmaker to earn the directing prize.
Lee has dominated at earlier awards shows, taking the directing prize at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America, the recipient of the latter almost always going on to win the Oscar.
His competition on Oscar night: Two-time best-director winner Steven Spielberg for the assassination thriller "Munich"; George Clooney for the Edward R. Murrow tale "Good Night, and Good Luck"; Paul Haggis for the ensemble drama "Crash"; and Bennett Miller for the Truman Capote saga "Capote."
Though nominated for best director previously with his martial-arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Lee arrives as the Oscar favorite with a distinctly un-Asian film.
"Brokeback Mountain" is a modern twist on the Western, casting Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as sheepherding pals whose summer fling turns into a passionate romance they conceal from their wives.
"I like the unknown place," Lee said backstage after his win at the Golden Globes. "I think the American West, true west, not west in movies, it's very romantic. It's lighthearted. It's a place that I hardly know, and I like to explore that."
Born in Taiwan, Lee first came to Hollywood's notice with the romantic charmers "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," which earned back-to-back Oscar nominations for foreign-language film for 1993 and '94.
Since then, Lee has been a chameleon, directing the Jane Austen costume romance "Sense and Sensibility," a best-picture nominee, the stark American drama "The Ice Storm," the Western "Ride With the Devil" and the comic-book adaptation "Hulk."
"Crouching Tiger" won the foreign-language honor for 2000 and earned a best-picture nomination.
"Brokeback Mountain" is a sweeping romantic melodrama with one foot rooted in the grand weepers of old Hollywood and the other kicking show business into modern times with its sensitive portrayal of a gay love affair.
Its subject matter aside, "Brokeback Mountain" stands as an estimable directing achievement for presenting an intimate character portrait against a backdrop of boundless Western vistas.
At 51, Lee already has eclipsed the Oscar track record of Kurosawa, whose film "Rashomon" received an honorary foreign-language film award and whose "Dersu Uzala" won the foreign-language Oscar. Kurosawa's films never broke into the best-picture category, though he was nominated for best director with "Ran" and received an honorary Oscar for 1989.
A look at the other directing nominees:
- Steven Spielberg, "Munich": The film was a daring choice for Spielberg, who incurred the wrath of Jewish groups that felt he humanized Arab terrorists in his dramatization of the Israeli pursuit of Palestinians linked to the massacre of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics.
Starring Eric Bana as leader of an Israeli hit squad, "Munich" is a dazzling directing achievement that creates an authentic period feeling through design and camera techniques that emulate the look of 1970s political thrillers.
But with two directing Oscars already for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," it's unlikely Spielberg will win a third for a film that left audiences lukewarm.
- George Clooney, "Good Night, and Good Luck": In 2005, Clooney graduated from superstar hunk who really wants to direct to serious filmmaker and actor.
Along with his directing honor, Clooney was nominated for co-writing the "Good Night" screenplay, and he earned a supporting-actor nomination for the oil-industry thriller "Syriana."
If he's going home with an Oscar, it probably will be for his excellent performance in "Syriana." That prize also would serve as a nice honorable mention for Clooney's directing accomplishment on a little black-and-white film about newsman Murrow (David Strathairn) that confounded expectations by becoming a commercial success as well as a critical hit.
- Paul Haggis, "Crash": Haggis was the one key member of the "Million Dollar Baby" quartet who did not win an Oscar last time. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman all won, but screenwriter Haggis came away empty-handed.
Oscar voters might remedy that this time by giving him the prize for the original screenplay of "Crash," which he co-wrote. The film features a huge cast led by Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton in a crisis-mode 36-hour period in Los Angeles.
Haggis himself has said he expects Lee and "Brokeback Mountain" to triumph, but the seamless stitching he managed with so many characters and story lines in "Crash" makes him a serious longshot contender.
- Bennett Miller, "Capote": Miller looks to be along for the ride with his searing portrait of author Capote, which is expected to make its Oscar splash in the best-actor category, where Philip Seymour Hoffman is favored to win for the title role.
For Miller, making his dramatic film debut after directing a single documentary previously, "Capote" and the Oscar attention are signs of good things to come from a fresh talent.