Life of Pi is an exquisite cinematic experience based on the immensely popular novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The director, Ang Lee, is arguably the most courageous and underrated contemporary director we have. He keeps two important regions found in the director’s mind active; versatility and boldness. Many directors stay in their comfort zone but Mr. Lee will have none of that. He has traversed the arrow of time from Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility to the Nixon-era gem The Ice Age to filming a compassionate interpretation of Hulk. When selecting story themes Mr. Lee is fearless. The magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龍) was based on the Crane-Iron book series and captivated a worldwide audience. And of course Brokeback Mountain, a work that solidified his natural talent for capturing the deepest aspects of human relationships and won him an Oscar.
Life of Pi is another challenge for Mr. Lee on several fronts. There was a large gap between the cinematic potential of Life of Pi and what would need to be pulled off to bring it to life. They decided to work in all digital 3D, to change the storytelling structure by inserting an adult Pi, to use live tigers in as many sequences as possible, obviously deferring to digital for safety. Then who do you cast as Pi? The choice was an unknown sixteen year old (Suraj Sharma). It was not enough for Mr. Lee to just tell a story of a boy stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Timing is everything in life and the film technology time was right for Life of Pi.
The story is told by an older Pi, now well beyond his at sea odyssey. He is at home with a writer when the story comes to life over lunch. Mr. Lee shapes the narrative by crosscutting between Pi’s tranquil home setting and the fight for life that becomes the main story. Over time the back and forth recedes, the stage is set and we find ourselves adrift in the lifeboat with Pi and the tiger Robert Parker
Pi Patel lives with his brother and parents in India. They are zookeepers and beyond that seem to be quite ordinary. The children attend school, the father works the zoo while the mother tends to the household duties. Pi is short for Piscine which in grammar school is a disaster. He tries to shorten his name to Pi and demonstrates his seriousness by taking the mathematical string of Pi and writing it across multiple blackboards in math class. He is deeply curious about many things and is drawn to one religion after another. His parents tolerate Pi’s bouncing about spiritually, but finally his father tells him that one needs to choose a path. Pi struggles with that concept, as he likes to keep his options open.
The parents decide to leave India and move to Canada. Selling the animals to other zoos in North America will fund their new life, so everyone is crated and caged and loaded onto a Japanese cargo ship. Life aboard ship is challenging for everyone. Sea sickness sets in and the galley isn’t prepared for vegetarians. Gérard Depardieu emerges from nowhere to play the nasty cook and the foreshadowing continues. A violent storm overtakes the freighter Tsimtsum and it sinks into the deep abyss of the Mariana Trench. There appear to be no other human survivors.
What follows is a spectacular series of encounters between Pi and Richard Parker as they struggle to survive. They are from completely different worlds but know that finding a way to connect is critical to mutual survival. Each have advantages and disadvantages and the story in the middle reels is largely about how they deploy their individual strategies. Pi studies a survival at sea manual found on board and keeps a detailed diary in the margins. He returns to the page that offers encouragement, particularly the line that says, never give up hope.
Mr. Lee lulls us into a new normal with calm seas then subjects us to the power of nature, almost an assault, as a reminder of who is in control. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography plays digital tricks on the eye. He suspends Pi and Richard Parker in time and space. Sometimes they appear to be on the water while other times they are floating in a star-flooded night sky. Water and sky become one, as that’s all they can see besides each other.
They find themselves run aground on a mysterious island overrun by banyan trees and meerkats. The island serves to remind our friends that hope is alive. The island serves to connect Pi to his native land through familiar landscape. Although a brief stop, it’s restorative.
Time has taken it’s toll and both are exhausted. Richard Parker’s power is spent and Pi is able to cradle the tiger’s head on his lap. The one moment of physical contact between them. Pi strokes his bleached pale coat and gazes skyward, “We’re dying, Richard Parker.”
Eventually they wash up on a Mexican shore. Pi collapses on the warm sand and Richard Parker makes his way to the beckoning forest. As Pi is carried to a hospital he is overcome with emotion, heart broken that his companion of 227 days saunters away without so much as a glance back. The owners of the cargo ship dispatch two investigators to interview Pi in hopes of gaining some clues as to why the vessel sank. Pi tells them his story. The investigators are not equipped to take that story back so they plead for a more believable one. In his retelling Pi swaps out animals for people.
Which story do you prefer? The one with animals or people? The meaning of this story rests with the viewer. In the book The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, A Journey, Mr. Martel states:
Are you directed by the flat edicts of rationality, or open to more marvelous possibilities? Do you need to know for certain, are you limited by that necessity, or are you willing to make leaps of faith?
The choice to make the picture all digital resulted in razor sharp images which made it more difficult for the viewer to separate reality from dream. The crew went to heroic lengths in every category to pull this off successfully. After the credits I completely forgot it was in 3D. Technical Oscar nominations are inevitable. Mychael Danna, a Canadian film composer, created the melodic framework for the film. He composed twenty-eight tracks, each written for a specific moment in the film with only subtle differences between them. There are no obvious clues in the score to point us one way or the other. The tracks provide subtle support for the overwhelming visuals of the pictue. You can listen on Soundcloud here. Life of Pi reminded me a little of Slumdog Millionaire. Unknown actors, unfamiliar surroundings, for a Western audience, and a study of relationships. Highly recommended.
Photo Credits: Twenty Century Fox Studios
P.S. Interested in tigers? Read about the National Tiger Sanctuary.