Prepare to brush the sea-water away from your eyes in Ang Lee’s ‘Life Of Pi’
I guess it’s only nature to be alarmed or even worried when a well-loved but supposedly “unfilmable” book gets the adaptation treatment, but Taiwanese director Ang Lee has taken up the challenge to deliver a visual take on author Yann Martel‘s spiritual novel of the same name. In the same year that Martel’s book was released, Lee was showcasing his native culture and prowess to the world with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and this very much feels even more of a knock-out punch than that film delivered to audiences, and with more added ‘tiger’. It’s Cast Away meets a 21st century Attenborough, but I can assure you, it’s even more than that.
As his family re-locate their zoo from India to Canada, Piscine Patel, more commonly known as ‘Pi’ (played by both Irrfan Khan and Suraj Sharma) and a Bengal tiger (affectionately named ‘Richard Parker’) are the only survivors as their freight ship sinks, leaving both stranded. With only a lifeboat and supplies between them, Pi and his new stripped companion look to co-exist as they hold onto their hope of surviving.
Just to get the technical side out of the way, the 3D is nothing short of stunning. Somehow, Lee has conjured a perfect visual blueprint to allow the sometimes troubled 3D technology to be used to the best of its ability. Not to say it’s like riding along a visual hallucination so to speak, but the finer details and direction just drifts along fantastically to the eye. So much so, you’re almost brushing sea-water away from your eyes or being pinned to the back of your seat at just how involving the natural world engages you. Also, with the emphasis on nature and the tranquillity it can provide, whether it be busy streets at an Indian market or the peaceful ocean setting, the 3D doesn’t let up and perfectly times itself throughout.
An absolute treat in it’s visuals alone, standing this up with Avatar’s and Hugo’s as examples of what 3D can achieve, when done for art purposes, not money making pursuits. As far as the story telling goes, when you consider just the cinematic mountains the book provides, this is as close to a timely adaptation of a difficult text as you’ll see. Whether it be significant lines or huge set pieces within the story itself, Lee delivers majestically, allowing the wonderful story that the book is anyway, to just play itself out and tackling any trepidation of its unfilmable qualities in a subtle and distinct manner.
Taking the essence that the spiritual and religious connotations, together with Lee’s direction is the true wonder of this tale. Addressing that old age theme of there being no atheist in a fox hole, (with the fox hole being the vast expanses of the Pacific in this case), the film almost tackles an even bigger question of everything in life being an act of letting go. Having the world at your feet as a youngster and then having to deal with putting losses behind you, carrying secrets to the grave, avoiding lingering doubts that holds you back in life is played out beautifully. Even with so much talk of God, and how our hero Pi wants to adapt the positives from each religion for his own gain, you can read plenty more into just the simple moral ideas and human qualities we have the ability to possess. Even the story could be seen as a biblical tale, with just the very fact of taking animals across vast water, it plays out like Noah movie dealing with the aftermath of his Ark sinking. The faithfulness of the adaptation nails Martels’ themes to an extent that Lee’s visuals of natural beauty and Earth’s wondrous features becomes almost like this transcendent wave that hits you again and again throughout. Praise too for the inclusion of the novels well known book cover, in cinematic form, done almost inch perfect.
Irrfan Khan is great as the older Pi, coming to terms with telling his story for the first time in a long time. But Suraj Sharma, the Pi who spends 227 days at sea and the Pi carrying the weight of the story, plays a character frustrated with his dilemma, frustrated with seeing his close ones diminish, frustrated at God’s ways in a fantastic way. One of the most moving moments is him comforting his tiger as the ever-roaring carnivore lays silent within his lap, coming to terms with both their strength mentally and physically fading, uniting that tension between man and beast. Stunning special effects makes the tiger an even more pivotal character throughout, with Pi seeing him almost as a challenge to be the dominant in their relationship, keeping his mind occupied from falling into disarray.
Its stance on any form of one single religion or faith is never fully nailed down, that’s not to say that’s a bad thing though. It’s as though Ang Lee is using this film, not to find his own religious aspect of life, but to enlighten minds and ask more questions than he means, or even wants, to answer. Just like Pi’s use of a bursting flare in the night sky, Lee throws up and expands questions of what it means to follow in religion, and ultimately what it means to believe in a God. Whether it be the personalities of our planets wildlife, or the glacial, unearthly, almost paradise feel of our home, he’s very cleverly made a philosophical piece that you don’t just watch, you live, breathe and experience.
And as a cinematic experience, it’s out of this world. It does that fantastic endearing quality that cinema can do better than any other medium, which is to leave you genuinely speechless in trying to create a feeling of what you’ve just witnessed on screen. Capturing the book perfectly is a masterful achievement, but to extend on that into something more is truly outstanding. Like all the great works of motion picture, it certainly needs to be seen to be believed.