Ang Lee has a poetic soul, with the ability to paint all areas of human experience with a colour that highlights all that is meaningful. I know this is true because The Hulk is the exception that proves it. Brokeback Mountain is a film with a great significance for me. It did actually change my life (for the better, I hasten to add). And so I knew that if anyone could interpret Yann Martel’s much loved novel Life of Pi eloquently for the cinema it would be Ang Lee.
Our young hero Piscine – named after a swimming pool but reinterpreted by school chums as ‘Pee’ and ‘Pissing’ – adopts the relative safer name of ‘Pi’, handily backed up by being able to write down the mathematical Pi in its infinity (I wonder if anyone checked). He is brought up in Pondichery Zoo in India, a small zoo cared for by his wise father and kind mother. When the zoo fails, the family sets sail with all of the animals in a great cargo ship bound for Canada and a new life. But a huge storm strikes the vessel and the ship sinks, leaving Pi bereft and alone, adrift on a lifeboat. For 227 days he survives in a tale of boundless courage, resourcefulness and resilience. His survival is all the more remarkable because with him in the lifeboat as the cargo ship sinks is a zebra, a hyena, an orang-outang and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Survival of the fittest is a brutal concept and soon only Pi and Parker are left and so begins their struggle to live.
Life of Pi is a film with two clear parts to it. Its beginning in a French-speaking region of India is full of life, humour and vivid colour. Here, the curious Pi picks up some of the lessons that will serve him in good stead later on. I found it difficult to leave this section of the film, in a way mirrored by Pi’s grief at leaving behind his warm, vibrant homeland for the unknown in Canada. Much of the film, though, takes place at sea with only Pi and a CGId Bengal tiger for company. But while the tiger remains firmly unsentamentalised and always frightening, Pi retains his humanity throughout, dealing with this terrible situation with humour and ingenuity. And we share it all in wondrous astonishment and admiration.
This is also intended to be a story about God – Pi is a follower of at least three faiths – and His presence is portrayed to Pi here in a multitude of ways even when to the audience His absence is conspicuous.
Pi sees the world through wondrous eyes and even in the depths of his trial he can marvel at the world around him, whether it be flying fish, jelly fish or whales. The most striking and haunting beauty, though, is seen through the ocean depths – the lights from the sinking, doomed vessel. Beautiful but hugely moving.
Suraj Sharma is perfect in this role, which, as we see him grow thin and haggard, clearly took its toll on his body. Richard Parker, also, is a masterpiece in CGI life. He is never anthropomorphised but he is very much a living, breathing character. Our feelings towards him, like Pi’s, are complicated.
I saw Life of Pi in 2D and so I cannot comment on the 3D except to say that it has attracted a great deal of praise. There are moments of almost surreal beauty on the boat and I can only imagine how stunning they would have looked and felt with an extra dimension.
With Life of Pi Ang Lee has shown again that he visualises human emotion and feelings peerlessly. While I didn’t feel the raw gut connection to this film as I did to Brokeback Mountain (that may have been once in a lifetime reaction), watching Life of Pi was one of my finest cinema experiences of 2012. Lee most certainly did every page of the novel justice.