Ang Lee has always made beautiful films. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he brought the fluid choreography of Chinese wuxia films to the West; in Brokeback Mountain, the harsh, barren landscape of the Canadian Rockies (masquerading as Wyoming) formed the perfect backdrop for the story of star-crossed lovers Ennis and Jack. Even his interpretation of The Hulk – not a good film by any means – at least had a distinctive style to it. It should therefore come as no surprise that his new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel’s prize winning novel Life of Pi, is one of the most gorgeous movies of the year; a dazzling digital dreamscape that sets staggering new heights for what can be accomplished with 3D technology.
A story of survival against the most incredible of odds, Life of Pi relates in flashback the journey of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a teenage boy from Pondicherry, India, who spends two-hundred and twenty-seven days lost at sea after the ship transporting him, his family and a cargo-hold full of their zoo-animals sinks during a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Fighting to stay alive, Pi is witness to Mother Nature in all her grace and savagery, even as he struggles to reconcile his complicated relationship with God. Of course, of more immediate concern is the relationship between him and his travelling companion, Richard Parker. Richard Parker, the fully grown Bengali tiger.
Similar to the novel, Lee frames his story through conversations between an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan; Slumdog Millionaire) and a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall; Prometheus). It’s a familiar but in this case effective narrative device, one which creates a kind of mutual amazement as we, like the author, are slowly drawn in by Pi’s incredible story. Like all good storytellers, our narrator doesn’t rush to the ending, but rather lets events unfold slowly. We hear about his childhood – how he was named by his uncle after a Parisian swimming-pool, and later adopted the abbreviated nickname to avoid schoolyard taunts of “Pissing Patel”. We also meet the people in his life – his kind hearted mother, stern father, older brother Ravi, and his childhood sweetheart, Shravanthi.
Even in these early scenes, Lee’s visual composition is incredible. The opening credits play over tranquil images of the family zoo, while the bright, vibrant colours of whirling sari’s capture the dizzying sensations of first love. It’s also in these early scenes that Lee reveals his aptitude for 3D, employed here with a level of delicacy and creativity that no other filmmaker has achieved. (In an unforgettable early shot, a man dives into a pool towards the camera, the still water suddenly breaking and rippling across the screen.) Life of Pi is the first live action 3D film since Avatar worth the inflated ticket price, and maybe the only film of the entire history of the format for which a 3D viewing is absolutely essential.
But the Patel’s life in India is about to come to an end. Shortly after Pi turns sixteen, his father, prompted by concerns over the country’s then unstable political situation, decides to sell the zoo and immigrate to North America aboard the ill-fated Japanese cargo-ship, the Tsimtsum. They’re only a few days at sea when they’re hit by a massive storm, one that drags the freighter, its cargo, and all that Pi has left deep into the darkness of the ocean. An awe-inspiring sequence of lightning, thunder, crashing waves and terrified zoo animals, the sinking of the ship is like something out of Revelations; a testament to man’s utter helplessness in the face of wrath from on high.
And yet it’s barely a warm-up act for Lee and his legion of visual effects men. From his tiny lifeboat, Pi encounters colossal whales, phosphorescent jellyfish and schools of shimmering flying fish. At another point, close to death from lack of food and water, he stares over the edge of the boat into the murky depths of the ocean, and envisions thousands of animals morphing together before dissolving against the infinite lights of the cosmos. Even the water in this movie is beautiful – a flawless mirror stretching out in every direction, undisturbed but for the movement of the lifeboat and its two unlikely crewmembers. The sheen of the 3D, which makes so many lesser films look artificial, here contributes to a sense of magical realism, almost as if Pi has slipped from our mundane plane of existence into a world made of colour and light.
Richard Parker, meanwhile, is realised so expressively through CGI that you may worry he’ll leap off the screen and attack you. That said, the special effects would be worthless without the excellent performance of 19 year old newcomer Suraj Sharma, who must sell the uneasy alliance between Pi and his razor-clawed companion. At first, he cedes ground to the animal, taking up refuge with his meagre supplies on an improvised dinghy that he tethers to the bow of the lifeboat. Eventually though, he realises that if he wants to survive, he will have to assert his dominance over the animal. Slowly, determinedly, he trains Richard Parker, finding renewed purpose each day in doing so. In this strange way, he reflects, his shipmate helps keep him alive.
Indeed, it is this sense of purpose – of meaning – that is so vitally important, not just to the character, but to the themes of the film. While Pi’s physical journey is on its own extraordinarily compelling, Lee, like Martel, is equally concerned with his spiritual one. Raised a Hindu, Pi discovered Christianity and Islam as a child, and soon began practicing all three: “I simply wanted to love God”, he recalls. This open approach to religion – to faith – makes Life of Pi all the more fascinating, and ultimately, all the more rewarding. When lost at sea, his Holy Book becomes a survival manual; one that tells him how to ration food, find fresh water and above all “not to lose hope”. God, they say, helps those who help themselves. Pi’s refusal to give up hope is an affirmation, if not to the existence of God, then at least to the power of man’s resilience and courage. That, and the transcendent properties of the cinema.