Released 2012. Director: Ang Lee
FOR YEARS NOW I’VE BEEN RECOMMENDING Life of Pi to anyone whenever I talk about books. “It’s one of the best books I’ve read,” I tell people. The tale of a boy shipwrecked in the Pacific is imaginative, engrossing and deceptively simple. Then came news that it was to be made into a movie. I followed the development with great interest.
How would they make a movie about a boy in a lifeboat with a tiger for 227 days? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan had a brilliant idea, he who dealt with a boy who sees dead people. But he abandoned ship. Then came Mexican director Alfonso Cuoron, who made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men. He too, departed the project. Likewise Jean Pierre-Jenuet who directed the whimsical feel-good sensation Amelie. And so Life of Pi was cast adrift like its protagonist. Until Ang Lee came onboard and the previously considered unfilmable story sails from the pages of an extraordinary book to become a magnificent movie. So good, I think it’s the best movie of 2012.
The appeal of this movie is universal. Ang Lee has crafted a pure, cinematic, escapist entertainment for all ages and cultures. The screen adaptation is faithful to Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winner in its tone and spirit. The movie follows the same narrative structure of having Pi, now in middle age, relating his story to a curious writer. The story Pi tells is his colourful and inquisitive childhood and then his rites of passage adrift on the ocean. It is amusing, whimsical, melancholic, and above all, it imparts a thrilling sense of wonder.
The early part of the movie is like visiting some enchanted village in a children’s storybook. Pi takes us through his childhood in Pondicherry, India, how he got his French inspired name Piscine and how he’s teased at school as ‘pissing’ until he shortened it to Pi, as in the infinite number, in quite a mathematically spectacular fashion. Young Pi has a boundless curiosity and is drawn to big questions. He adopts Hinduism, Islam and Christianity simultaneously in his thirst to understand the enigma of God. Pi is also interested in the animals his zookeeper father keeps, and learns a frightful lesson that tigers are not a boy’s best friend.
Visually, Life of Pi is stunning, the work of Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda. The family drama of Pi’s childhood in Pondicherry unfolds like colours blossoming. Indian life is a saturation of warm and homely hues. Lee’s use of 3D technology – more often a distracting gimmick in most movies – is judicious and selective to accentuate certain ideas and heighten particular moments. Natural and organic, the added dimension enhances our perception of the odyssey. We look up from the bottom of a pool a swimmer gently gliding across the sky beyond the water. Sunrise on the ocean becomes a magical realm where the boat, the boy and the tiger appear as if drifting inside a glorious mirror. A school of flying fish darts across the screen (and around you). A million meerkats stand on their hind legs gawking at you. A dream sequence turns the underwater world into a wonderland. The haunting spectre of a boy suspended in stormy water as a ship sinks before his eyes. There are many scenes of wonder that you’ll remember.
The most remarkable visual aspect is the tiger itself, who goes by the name Richard Parker. A ferocious creature of majestic beauty evolves from a man-eating predator to a lost boy’s only companion. This tiger is just as thematically integral to the story as Pi and a character worthy of a Best Supporting Actor award. Pi’s father once said it’s only our emotions we see reflected in animal’s eyes. After you’ve seen Richard Parker in the eye, something tells you there’s depth behind those orbs. His ferocious eyes, his thick fur, his roar and his movements – this tiger is so real you’ll be worried the boy ends up as dinner.
At a deeper level beneath this floating miracle, Life of Pi is also about the innate human need to find meaning. What is the meaning in Pi’s survival? How does he see his own incredible journey? How does meaning emerge from tragedy and pain? Here’s an inquisitive child who finds his own meaning of life in three religions, an equal opportunity believer. Sadly no religion could explain what happened as his parents, brother and a menagerie of god’s creations drown in their watery graves. So the boy on an ultimate spiritual quest creates his own meaning. The alternative simply doesn’t make sense in a world where god is supposed to be merciful and loving. What you get is a story rich in interior contemplations but Lee turns it into awe-inspiring entertainment even during esoteric moments. The way the film ends leaves you a choice to take Pi’s story as literally or as symbolically as you choose. If I make it sound preachy, it is so not. Trust me.
Life of Pi is a search for God, for something to believe in, as much as it is about a boy’s search for dry land. An amazing story about how we justify to ourselves what we want to believe, what we hold as true, and ultimately, what gives us peace.