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Taiwanese-born Ang Lee was the first Asian ever to win an Oscar for directing, in 2006 for gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain.

Seven years later he has done it again with 3-D fantasy Life of Pi.

"Thank you, movie god," Lee told the audience at the 85th Academy Awards on Sunday after accepting his award. "I need to thank Yann Martel for writing this incredibly inspiring book."

Turning his hand to just about every movie genre, the 58-year-old immigrant has earned himself awards, acclaim - and sometimes the ire - of critics and a lot of money at the global box office.

Life of Pi, based on the 2001 novel by Canadian novelist Martel, tells the tale of an Indian boy cast adrift in the Pacific, sharing his boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Almost all of Lee's films have drawn on both Western and Asian culture to depict characters struggling to fit into society, and live up to the pressures of family and repressive social expectations.

His early works include 1993's The Wedding Banquet, the story of a gay Taiwanese man who fakes marriage to satisfy cultural demands, and his 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's English manners novel Sense and Sensibility.

This was followed by 1997 social drama The Ice Storm, his Oscar-winning martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and blockbuster 2003 superhero movie The Hulk.

Lee was born in 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan, where his father fled from mainland China after his own landowner parents, the director's grandparents, were executed during the Communist revolution of 1949.

After setting out to train as an actor, Lee graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975 before heading to the United States at the age of 24 to study cinema in Illinois and New York, which remains his adopted home.

His feature directorial debut was 1992's Pushing Hands, a Chinese-language comedy about the generational conflicts sparked as a retired master of the Chinese art of tai chi struggles to find his place in US society.

The film was a success on both sides of the Pacific, and Lee followed it with his sexually conflicted story The Wedding Banquet, which garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

He repeated the feat in 1994 with Eat Drink Man Woman, a comic look at a family only able to express their love for each other through food.

Hollywood came calling, and Lee took on the big-budget 19th-century period piece Sense and Sensibility, his first English-language film, starring Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant.

But he achieved global fame in 2000 with his imaginative take on Chinese martial arts films in Crouching Tiger, which won 10 Academy Awards nods and took home four statuettes.

Following his growing flow of movies and a critical bashing of his $US120 million Hulk, the bruised Lee was contemplating retirement until his father, who had never approved of his movie career, talked him out of it.

He decided to do the small $US14 million Western Brokeback, the story of two conflicted gay cowboys who fall into a secret love affair in 1960s Wyoming, in the hope that it would help him heal.

While he was thrilled to make it and gave it his signature subtle, compassionate touch, he remained tortured by the filmmaking process.

"Making movies is my Brokeback Mountain," he once said. "It's a fight, it's an effort, but at the end, I've found my secret place. The place I feel at home."

Since then he made Shanghai-based erotic spy thriller Lust, Caution in 2007 and 2009's Taking Woodstock, about the era-defining 1969 music festival, which was nominated for the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or top prize.