Ang Lee is a difficult man to pin down. You’d be hard-pressed to put all the films the Taiwanese director has done in one particular box. His credits include Chinese dramas; Jane Austen adaptations; and films involving martial arts, superheroes and gay cowboys.
Not all have succeeded, but the film world has been enriched because Lee was willing to lend his unique perspective to a wide variety of subjects.
His latest, Life of Pi, is yet another step out of the box for the unconventional filmmaker. Based on the 2001 novel of the same name, it follows an Indian boy named Piscine Patel – Pi for short – whose road to spiritual discovery has two distinct phases.
The film world has been enriched because Ang Lee was willing to lend his unique perspective to a wide variety of subjects.
As a boy, Pi, a Hindu by birth, explores many different religions as part of his naturally curious personality. But his faith in all religions is put to the test when, following a shipwreck involving his whole family, he’s forced to try and survive on a lifeboat.
That the lifeboat also contains a zebra, orangutan, hyena and Bengal tiger, which were part of a zoo Pi and his family were transporting from India to Canada, makes that survival even harder.
The film contains three elements — children, animals and water — that are said to be the downfall of many a film because they are so difficult to work with. Lee tackles all of them head on, and he adds an extra degree of difficulty by choosing to film in 3D, something he’d never done before.
3D would not normally be a good choice for a relatively small, character-driven film such as this, but the fantastical nature of the second half of the film proves Lee right. His impressive use of 3D and advanced computer graphics, another element Lee had not employed much in his career, make Pi’s time at sea a wonder to behold.
Animals that normally couldn’t be trained for scenes with humans are believably displayed. Water scenes that should be impossible are rendered without anyone being put at risk.
Lee’s impressive use of 3D and advanced computer graphics make Pi’s time at sea a wonder to behold.
Most notable, however, are breaks from reality that Lee includes during Pi’s extended stay on the lifeboat.
Pi’s imaginings of an impossibly calm ocean surface that mirrors the night sky or of a sea of glowing jellyfish are eye-popping, especially in 3D.
Even without having to deal with an increasingly agitated tiger, Pi’s tale would be harrowing.
As it is, though, the second half of the film is an almost constant nail-biter, as their circumstances become more and more desperate. But because it’s balanced out by the quieter first half, the film as a whole is a hopeful story that exudes the virtues of patience, faith and learning from one’s elders.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma is fantastic as the Pi seen throughout most of the film. (Irrfan Khan and Ayush Tandon play the character at older and younger ages, respectively.) Because he’s usually acting opposite nonexistent animals or water, his compelling performance is remarkable.
Ang Lee has taken on another challenge with Life of Pi, and he met it. There aren’t many films that absolutely have to be seen in 3D, but this is one of them. Give yourself an early Christmas present and go see the intellectual and visual treat that is Life of Pi.