“Life of Pi” is a stunning visual achievement. It is so an absorbing and exquisite visual experience that I was effortlessly pulled into its fantastic story about a young boy’s unbelievable drift with a Bengal tiger on the vast Pacific Ocean for 227 days, and I found its many memorable moments quite enchanting and haunting. Even though it suggests that there may be a different reality far harsher than what is told and shown to us during most of its running time, the movie does what every good fantasy fiction should do; it presents us its own convincing reality in its implausible story, and we can accept it at least for a while even when recognizing its unrealistic elements here and there.
The hero of the story is a young boy named Pi, who was born as Piscine Molitor Patel. He was named after his uncle’s favorite pool in France(it does exist, by the way), but not many people know that ‘Piscine’ means pool, and his schoolmates unfortunately associated his name with ‘pissing’, which quickly became his nickname among them. In his first bold forward step in his life, Piscine shortens his name to “Pi”, a mathematical constant which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and he makes it sure his new name to be known to his schoolmates on the first day of a new school year.
Pi is a bright and inquisitive boy who not only absorbs but also contemplates on what he encounters. His well-educated parents are not that religious, but Hinduism naturally comes first to Pi in their daily life in Pondicherry, India, and he becomes fascinated by its myths filled with many gods. He is also introduced to Christianity and Islam later, and he gets equally fascinated by their monotheistic ideas as he forms his eclectic way of religious life. His thoughts and behaviors may be odd and silly, but, after all, don’t all religions recognize the presence of the power of a higher order?
While his father does not care much about his son’s unorthodox religious lifestyle, he gives an important practical lesson about the nature to Pi and Pi’s elder brother. He is a businessman who happens to run a zoo which initially was a botanical garden, and one of the animals kept there is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Through presenting the savage side of this big tiger to his sons, his father shows his sons that it is no cute cat to mess with.
And that lesson comes very clear to Pi when he finds himself with Richard Parker on a lifeboat drifting on the ocean. After his father decides to close the zoo and move his family to Canada, they go on board a Japanese cargo ship along with the remaining animals including Richard Parker. For some unknown reason, the ship sinks to the bottom of the Mariana Trench during a dark and stormy night, and Pi manages to survive as he watches the ship sinking with its crews and other passengers, including his dear family. As the first big-scale CGI sequence in the movie, the sinking sequence strikes us and its hero with its tumultuous terror above the water and its haunting tragedy below the water.
There are other animals besides Richard Parker on the lifeboat, but, as soon as the new day begins on the horizon, the law of nature is applied to them just like what we have seen from the National Geographic documentaries, and there eventually remain only Pi and Richard Parker on the boat. Richard Parker is undoubtedly a CGI creature like other animals on the lifeboat, but, through remarkably seamless CGI effects, this fearsome Bengal tiger looks convincingly real and menacing on the screen as a living creature, and I still remember when my mother and other few audiences were jolted by its quick and ruthless movement at one point. The movie tactfully distances itself from the gory details and leaves them to our imagination while never softening the story or hurting its elegance, and I am sure the children in the screening room got a good lesson from this memorable CGI creature far less adorable than Tigger the tiger.
For his survival, Pi becomes resourceful as trying to deal with his hostile fellow passenger. He makes a makeshift raft floated apart from the boat for his safety. He learns a lot from a helpful guidebook on the survival during drift and spends his days in applying the knowledge to practice. He also finds a way to get a sort of acceptance from the tiger through a basic training method, but they are in a rather fragile truce; if Pi is not careful enough, he might be its last meal.
Based on Yann Martel’s popular novel, David Magee’s screenplay does a good job in adapting the story which has been considered hard to be adapted. Though a little more dramatic tension is added to the original story, the story and its intriguing philosophical ideas remain intact in the movie, and the director Ang Lee, whose illustrious career has been as versatile as Sidney Lumet’s even after his Oscar win with “Brokeback Mountain”(2005), fills the story with beautiful images as the movie always stays close to Pi and Richard Parker throughout their journey.
There are many terrific visual moments in the film and I will not describe them in details for not spoiling your experience, but I must say that the movie is one of the rare 3D films you should watch with 3D glasses at the big screening room. I am not a big fan of 3D, but, like other talented directors did before, Ang Lee proves that 3D is effective if it is correctly used as a tool for enhancing the story, not for extracting extra money from the audiences. That fluidic feeling of water is considerably enhanced through 3D effects on the screen, and then we have a spine-tingling moment when the sky and the ocean seem to be brought into contact with each other like a pair of mirror images. Seriously, I am looking forward to re-watching this scene and other excellent scenes again with 3D IMAX version.
The achievement of the movie is all the more remarkable considering that they initially shot these scenes only with the lifeboat and the lead actor Suraj Sharma in a giant wave tank constructed in Taiwan before they added Richard Parker and other CGI effects during the post-production period. Although he did not have much to interact with on the boat, Suraj Sharma, a newcomer who had no acting experience before coincidentally chosen through the audition, gives a strong dramatic performance as the emotional center for every wonder and horror seen through his character’s view, and we are drawn to his emotional/spiritual journey as Pi goes through his brightest times and darkest times on the vast ocean. While learning how much resilient he can be under dire circumstances, Pi also comes to recognize his limit as being stuck in his extreme condition; his name represents the infinity, but that irrational number is always less than 3.15 no matter how long its decimal representation can be.
That extreme condition strips him of everything in his life, but that is how he comes to feel closer to something transcendent in his world and life as well as Richard Parker – at least in his view. The movie does not sentimentalize the relationship eventually formed between two at all, and what’s inside this beast’s head remains ambiguous even at the end of their journey. We only guess that Richard Parker has accepted Pi’s territory in the boat, and I still saw the barrier between their minds even during their most ‘intimate’ moment, as I did during an unpleasant encounter with my cousin’s cat on New Year’s Eve.
When the movie ends, you may wonder about the story – and you may ask whether it is true or not. As Older Pi(Irrfan Khan) suggests to the writer(Rafe Spall) around the finale, there may be a true story which is darker and more disturbing than the first story. Irrfan Khan, who has attracted my attention since his touching performance in Mira Nair’s “The Namesake”(2006), subtly implies that other possibility as a man who eventually found the peace in his mind in spite of being scarred by a devastating tragedy which shattered his former life forever.
But does it matter? The movie sparkles with its bountiful details in its own tranquil rhythm, and my mind believed its story even when it asked me how the hell a horde of meerkats can live on a mysterious island nobody has ever reported, and I could not take off my eyes from the wondrous sights provided to me and other audiences. Besides, even if the second story is true, I believe the first story still works as a powerful story about what our human mind can do with faith and imagination in its finite dimensions.
I remember what Gabriel García Márquez said about how he made the fantastic events in his novels feel real, “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants in the sky, people will probably believe you.” What Ang Lee and his actors and crews did with their story can be easily summarized in the last sentence, and the result is one of the special films of the last year – and I am glad that I started the first day of 2013 with it.