The Monocle – “Life of Pi”

Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: David Magee
Released: November 21st, 2012
Theatre watched at: AMC Universal Citywalk, Los Angeles

If there is a single defining word to describe Ang Lee’s choices in the films that he makes it is “diverse.” Sense and Sensibility (1995)-a British period drama focusing on possessions and love. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)-a Chinese martial arts fantasy adventure defying the laws of physics. Hulk (2003)-a comic book film featuring an angry, green juggernaut “monster” being hunted by the military. Brokeback Mountain (2005)-a tragic, American West love story between two men who ache to be together against societal boundaries. Taking Woodstock (2009)-a dramedy centered on a young man’s goal to save his family’s motel by means of opening it to organizers of the first Woodstock Festival of 69′. As you can see, director Lee is somewhat of a free spirited filmmaker, one who has known to be audacious as well as artistic, and often adapts or expands on existing written work to apply his visual keenness to. Oh, and I guess it wouldn’t be too bad to mention that he’s also won 16 Academy Awards (combined Oscar and Golden Globe), so, you know, there’s that. As you can imagine, it came as no surprise to me when it was announced he would be heading the film adaptation to “that other book in high school I was suppose to read,” Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001)-a survival adventure story that focuses on a multi-religious, Indian teenager who is forced to spend nearly a year on a rescue boat with a bengal tiger after the freighter that was suppose to take him to Canada capsizes in a storm and kills his entire family. Diversity! And no, it is not an “old, old wooden ship used during the Civil War era.”

Although released in 3D, believe me when I say that this film need not be seen in 3D to marvel at the exuberance and scale of its visual artistry; Life of Pi sets a new landmark for cinematic photography both separately and in the mix of its digital and practical efforts, not to mention that it’s one hell of an imaginative and thrilling story. I don’t want to go into too much detail in this summary because it is so rich, but the story is actually told from a retrospective point-of-view of a grown-up version of our protagonist Pi Patel (Irfan Khan). A man only known as “the writer” (Rafe Spall) visits Pi in his home in Canada in the hopes that the amazing story Pi has to tell him will be interesting enough to be his next publication. Pi then begins to recall his past, beginning when he was child and explaining the origins of his peculiar name, then leading up to the real story of when, as him and his zoo-owning family were immigrating to Canada from India on a freighter, he becomes stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with his father’s tiger, aptly named Richard Parker, on a tiny rescue boat after the freighter is sunk from a severe storm, killing everyone else on board. With only a few supplies and a constantly hungry and territorial tiger to watch out for, Pi must struggle to survive in the unpredictable ocean, relying on religious faith and the beautiful signs of nature he experiences to keep his will alive.

It’s truly hard to explain the sort of visual journey Lee takes you through in the film, but If I were to correlate it to anything, it would be like watching an impressionist painting come to life. There are moments that are quiet and warm with the colors faintly existing, as if in some dream. Other moments are loud and expressive where the colors burst off the screen with such a glow that it is almost chilling. One absolutely breathtaking shot occurs when just after the freighter becomes completely submerged, Pi swims down to get one last look at it, possibly hoping to see survivors, and yet all we see is a haunting visual of a tiny Pi in the foreground floating in the seemingly empty ocean as the immensity of the dying ship slowly falls in the background. The shot holds for what seems like forever, but during that time you can’t help but feel the rush of emotions coming from Pi as well as the perishing crew, creeping to their inevitable graves. Standing ovation to the visual effects crew for creating one of the most realistic digital oceans I’ve ever seen, it has such dynamic mood it feels like its own character.

From what I’ve heard, the 3D in this film is suppose to rival that of Cameron’s Avatar; I unfortunately did not catch a 3D showing, however based on the critics, it seems as if the extra bucks may be the most well spent on a 3D film this year, so I would highly recommend jumping into that extra dimension if you can, I know I’d definitely be up for it. I also did not get a chance to read the book (as if I would really try) but if the book is anything like the film, which I hear follows it quite closely, then I applaud Yann Martel for such a wonderful and inspired story. Quite honestly I found myself most engaged in the first half of the film where we are taken through such a rush of what molded Pi into the intelligent teenager he became, and more than that it provided me a look into a lifestyle that I hadn’t really experienced before, I mean having a family who owns a zoo in India? That can’t possibly be anything like running the San Francisco Zoo or anything. Once he’s out at sea, the narrative slows quite a bit and the visuals take over; it’s a bit of a balance and pace problem with me having a movie split between an initial hasty, Slumdog Millionaire type vibe to a more Cast Away scene, but it didn’t take away much from the experience.

As for the acting, Lee goes with a more unknown cast and, not that I’m trying to make implications at all, but there’s nothing really award worthy here-it’s my understanding that Lee sometimes purposely chooses new or upcoming actors in order to downplay the potential “stardom” that comes with A-list actors, allowing other film elements to speak for themselves. Tobey Maguire was actually originally cast as “the writer,” even as far as having shot some scenes, but after having some thought, Lee decided that he was too much of a star and that seeing Maguire may be too “jarring.” Although I don’t think this film we nominated in acting categories, I am extremely impressed with actor Irfan Khan. I found his calmness as the present Pi to give his story much more mystery and unpredictability; he’s extremely difficult to read and yet you know what he has gone through has had such an impact in every way in his life. There’s a specific moment in which Pi is in the final moments of his story and he is recollecting his journey with Richard Parker-the restrained emotion Khan brings is so real that its quite heartbreaking and a beautiful moment that I give much props  to Khan for, I hope to see him more in future films.

Just like the previous novel adaptation/visual extravaganza Cloud AtlasLife of Pi is another 2012 must-see for people of all ages and interests. It’s sure to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, and Best Director at the next Oscars. Since you are most likely to be hopped up on the upcoming release of The Hobbit, do yourself  a favor before your forget this film exists and go see it in 3D if you can.

Bow Tie Approved

Bow Tie Score - 4.5