The outcome of this review is somewhat inevitable. I’m an absolutely enamoured admirer of the work of Ang Lee. From his fractured family unit drama ‘The Ice Storm’ to his breakthrough ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and even his first Hollywood misfire ‘Hulk’ I’ve always found much to enjoy in his work, no matter how flawed it may seem. For me there’s always something more I notice on repeat viewings.
Perhaps it was wrong of me to assume from the stunning trailers that ‘Life of Pi’ would be a 3D visual spectacle aimed at the summer audience with the subtraction of substance and emotion to match. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumption.
The titular ‘Pi’ is a young boy whose family own a zoo.
Their burgeoning financial difficulties and his father’s cautious and somewhat faithless nature instigate a migration from his Indian homeland to the USA leaving behind his dreams, a romance in its infancy and in some ways his sense of self discovery. So, Pi, family and an entire zoo including a majestic tiger named Richard Parker head away on a voyage across oceans that’s guaranteed to end in catastrophe (hey, I’d seen the trailer). What follows is a battle for survival that will shape Pi for the rest of his living years and also form the basis of a story that Pi confidently claims will make you “believe in God”.
Now, this is definitely a film to be experienced while knowing as little as possible, and my brief summary is all the plot I’m going to cover. The film itself is a bonafide thing of beauty. Ang Lee frames every shot like you’re a God with a penchant for voyeurism as Pi’s experience unfolds. You experience his doubt, his determination, his sadness and his temporary joy at the small victories he needs to take to heart and cherish to ensure his survival and eventual growth. While we’re being entertained, we’re watching a metaphor for life itself unfold in front of our eyes. The trick of a great film maker is that we never notice or feel we’re being preached to. When the film ties itself together with one single line of dialogue I can only hope you’re as moved, reaffirmed and just as flat out happy as I was.
Ang Lee’s skill lies in making his audience empathise with individuals that are as dissimilar to the viewer as could be. He coaxes you into the situation, brings you onside, makes you care then plays with your heart. It’s truly the sign of a master at work. I’ll never forget my reaction to as simple an image of a worn jacket hanging in a closet in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or the sinking feeling of stomach butterflies I experienced watching the vistas of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ unfold with a hundred fond memories of characters troubled and misunderstood. With ‘Life of Pi’s’ massive budget and array of bombastic set pieces and visual splendour you could be forgiven for thinking the diminutive Taiwanese auteur may have forgotten his roots. Trust me. He didn’t.
‘Life of Pi’ is an affirmation of everything good, a reassuring embrace around all of our belief systems. On a literal basis, it’s a reassurance that Hollywood isn’t afraid to take a risk in the hands of someone as capable of Ang and long may that continue. I can recommend ‘Life of Pi’ unequivocally. My only hope is that Lee will continue to be allowed to work his magic behind the lense without interference. Studios, please show faith, because true progression and greatness comes from it. Even from an image as raw and base level as a boy, a boat and a tiger. It’s what’s between the lines that make us all whole.