That great cinematic chameleon Ang Lee is at it again. This time, he’s taken an “unfilmable” book and crafted an arthouse film designed to appeal to mainstream audiences. Has he pulled off one of the year’s best films?
One of the few benefits of doing a film review so long after you’ve seen it is that, by this point, you are already divorced of any early knee-jerk reactions. This serves films like “Life Of Pi” especially well, where there are a whole lot of things simmering beneath the surface. The distance affords you the ability to mull over its meaning in greater depth. Things that initially bugged you may no longer seem like such a big deal, while things that didn’t seem like issues before may now become clearer. 20/20 hindsight, as they say.
So half a month later, have I discovered any new revelations? Let’s just say where I was once unsure whether this would land on my Top 10 Best of 2012, I am now certain it belongs in the Top 5. Right from the first viewing, it was obvious that “Life Of Pi” is a very, very good film. When it comes to greatness, however, it sometimes takes a little time to dawn on you. This is a film that gets under your skin and stays there. I’ve found myself revisiting it over and over again in my mind. Slowly but surely, the themes and subtext have fully reached me. True classics often have that quality.
Based on a novel (by Yann Martel) many said was “unfilmable”, the story is at face value about Pi, an Indian boy who ends up on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with just a few zoo animals for company. Chief among them is a ferocious Bengal tiger, amusingly misnomered Richard Parker. The film is bookended by the adult Pi relating this story to a writer, who’s been informed that it “will make him believe in God”.
On a surface level alone this story is beautifully told. I mean that literally. For me, “Life Of Pi” has replaced “Prometheus” as THE most visually stunning film of the year. At turns realistic and surreal, with psychedelic colours and dreamlike imagery, the look of the film itself is reason enough to command repeat viewings. Taiwanese director Ang Lee, channeling his vision via Claudio Miranda’s cinematography, has really put the “art” into arthouse.
The visual effects deserve special mention. Save for a few almost imperceptible moments of falseness, the CGI animals by Rhythm & Hues Studios are photo-realistic and totally believable. It helps that they mixed in some footage of actual live animals, which only emphasise just how impressive the animated versions are. The most amazing thing is how they managed to so convincingly portray the behaviour of a tiger on board a small lifeboat, as I seriously doubt there is any real-life frame of reference for a scenario like that. It’s not just pretty pictures either. The visuals and CGI are wholly in service of story, and it’s fascinating to see how Pi’s survival and co-existence with his savage companion plays out. If you take only that away as a viewing experience, it’s more than good enough. On this level I can imagine kids enjoying the film.
Where “Pi” works its true magic is in its themes. The title character is a follower of multiple religions, and this ties in thematically with the point of his rather unbelievable story. All religions, perhaps excluding Buddhism (which Pi somehow left out of his belief system), rely heavily on faith. As does our acceptance of Pi’s story. His first story, that is. Because he later tells another story, one far more dark and brutal, and devoid of any of the former’s sense of beauty, hope or compassion. The latter story is told to investigators after he makes it back to civilization, and it sounds more “believable” because there are no fantastical elements in it. Just the ugly side of humanity. Which story we choose to accept depends on our own worldview. So if you go with the more magical-sounding story, despite the complete absence of proof or logic, then you are going on faith.
Now I don’t necessarily see this as being about the belief in God per se, as faith has a far broader context than just the spiritual kind. Personally, I think the film is making an indictment on cynicism. Cynicism strangles the imagination, kills hope, and generally robs the world of any mystery or magic. All the things that “Pi” celebrates. It’s quite simple, really. If you have faith, you will be rewarded. Not just in a general sense, but in your takeout of the film as well.
On a more subtle note, the film pays tribute to the age-old art of storytelling, and the power the storyteller wields over his audience. The very nature of “truth” becomes highly subjective depending on what the storyteller chooses to reveal, omit or change. You’re basically being manipulated into thinking and feeling whatever the person telling it deems fit. And that applies to Ang Lee as well. It’s entirely by design that he lavishes all the wondrous sights and sounds on the more fanciful tale, and relegates the 2nd story to be told in a cold, spartan manner in a plain, barren setting, without any fleshing out on screen. Again, if one were to be cynical, this could be interpreted as the truth needing no embellishment. Lee is clearly taking a more positive stance and it’s quite hard not to be swept up in it.
Part of the reason why Pi’s life journey is so compelling lies in the casting of its lead. Veteran actor Irrfan Khan is suitably grounded as the elder Pi, but it is newcomer Suraj Sharma who makes Pi such a likable and engaging character. Although his inexperience shows in a couple of scenes where he plays it a tad melodramatic, Sharma always comes across as emotionally authentic. This is one of the best debut performances I’ve seen in a while.
If anyone were to say mainstream entertainment can’t sit comfortably alongside big, thought-provoking ideas, I’d simply cite this film. It’s got a few flaws, like Lee’s penchant for long takes which sometimes feel draggy, plus an over-eagerness to present its point of view. These are relatively minor issues. “Life Of Pi” is a valuable gem of a film that is beautiful both outside and inside. It might not make you believe in God, but it will very likely reaffirm your faith in the power of a story well-told, as only great Cinema can.