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Ang Lee's Life of Pi - The Eye of the Tiger


Ang Lee's Life of Pi, courtesy 20th Century Fox.


My record of picking Oscar winners (apart from Slumdog Millionaire in 2009) is so bad that I might as well predict It Happened One Night as tomorrow's Oscar triumph (if you've never seen it, do - it more than deserved the "Big Five" Oscars it won in 1935).

Before this year's Oscars, though, I want to say a word about Ang Lee's Life of Pi, which without doubt deserves the Oscar for Trippiest Film of the Year.

Life of Pi is the first time that I have watched a movie and felt that 3D made a profound difference to the creative success of the film. There were sequences in James Cameron's Avatar that really used 3D well, but almost every shot in Pi seems to have been composed with the extra dimension in mind. Elements float at various depths, whether it is the astonishing hummingbird shot at the beginning, or the levels of swimming pool and sky shortly after, or the astonishing cosmic depths in my favorite sequence, which I will get to in a minute.

I was also intrigued by the premise of Pi - the "I have a story that will make you believe in God" element.

It may be present in Yann Martel's novel, but I was fascinated to see how Ang Lee, one of my favorite directors, would handle it cinematically.

As a Buddhist, I don't believe in god, or gods, but I am quite comfortable with the concept of a transcendent, rather geometrical beauty to this universe, that incorporates vast dark blobs of chaos, whether they be black holes or dark matter or whatever.



Richard Parker contemplates eternity.

While I wouldn't consider Life of Pi necessarily Ang Lee's supreme work (I love The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution too much), it is an extraordinarily moving and visually stunning film, that affects me possibly in different ways from some viewers.

I liked the tiger, Richard Parker's performance. I didn't care when or whether it was a CGI tiger or a real tiger. The visual effects were great, but I was more interested in how the oddly-named tiger fit into the narrative.

I don't consider humans superior to animals (yes, we've achieved some pretty impressive stuff, but we also rape children, engage in mass warfare and deliberately torture each other for a variety of reasons, none of which animals do, to my knowledge).

As a result, I found the relationship between Pi (played in the boat by teenage actor, Suraj Sharma) and Richard Parker, one of equals - and, no doubt as intended, an exploration of the interior mind of Pi.

In fact, I could have done without the (major spoiler alert) "second story" that is the clever - and probably well-loved - twist of both the book and the film's narrative. I think I would have pondered the scenes in the boat as being metaphorical - and metaphysical - without having it spelled out for me.


Through the tiger's eye.

Life of Pi really came alive for me (second major spoiler alert) in the scene in which Richard Parker, near death, is staring over the boat into the dark night ocean depths. Pi asks him, "What are you looking at? Talk to me. Tell me what you see."

The tiger turns and gives what for me is the most significant look in the movie. Pi then stares over into the black sea, and we see the tiger's head and eyes from beneath the ocean - and are swept into the trippiest sequence in the movie, a sequence that may well be the closest a film can come to communicating a sense of "god."

I would have been happy, at this point, for the film to take off on a wordless, directionless (in the normal sense of the word) third act, somewhat like the Star Gate sequence in 2001.

The 3D was mesmerizing, as were the images, but it was over all too briefly. The remainder of the movie was intriguing - not least the island (which nonetheless reminded me of one of our children's favorite movies, Madagascar) - but when (third major spoiler alert) Pi was returned to humankind, and watched Richard Parker wander off into the jungle, I wanted nothing more than to follow the tiger and see more of what he sees.


Director Ang Lee working on Life of Pi.

I love Ang Lee, and I love what he has accomplished with Life of Pi - producing a film that truly transcends East and West, with no recognizable Hollywood stars and a storyline and tone that feel definitely more Asian than Los Angeles. 

The film has also performed astonishingly well at the box office around the world, with a worldwide gross to date of over half a billion dollars, and is the second highest-grossing film in China ever (after the 3D release of James Cameron's Titanic).

I hope Lee wins Best Picture and Best Director tomorrow, because I believe that he is in a class of his own, and, of the nominated movies, Life of Pi is the most unique. Had Moonrise Kingdom or The Master been nominated, I would have been torn, but as things stand, my own personal vote is for Ang Lee and Life of Pi - or It Happened One Night.


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