Life of Pi: The Conquered Eye and Soul

  As one of the greatest highlights of the 9th BJIFF, Life of Pi still bears the clear imprint of Ang Lee. Yet the director’s iconic style is not so apparent as you think. It lurks behind stunning special effects, fantastic storyline and profound implications. The film shows not just the essence of the original novel, but even his own view of life.

  Many guys would say “There is a tiger hidden in the heart of everyone” when they watch the film. Oh, perhaps some others don’t think so. But it doesn’t matter which opinion is right. All that matters is that Ang Lee just shot the film and left the story open to interpretation. In this way, it made a great success. So, we’d like to start with different opinions of the film and end with the director’s own opinion.

  Though the film depicts such a wonderful adventure, we can never know whether it’s true by examining its details. So, the helmsman just gives the right of interpretation to every audience. If you think human is kind by nature, you’d believe there is a tiger indeed. But if you don’t think so, Pi himself is the tiger. The film leaves the audience an open ending. Whatever you think, it will be the outcome with which Ang Lee is happy. That’s because there is a saying—“To watch is to believe.”

  Critic Zhou Liming gave a typical view of the tiger Richard Parker, “The young man and tiger could be interpreted in many different ways. The tiger may be a symbol or psychological projection of the youngster. And his fear for the tiger is a fear for the evil nature of humanity.” This opinion holds that the protagonist wanders on the sea without the tiger. History shows that many a Richard Parker survived the shipwreck and lived on eating their partners’ corpses. The film gives the protagonist that name to suggest the truth may be brutal and gruesome.

  As a matter of fact, many people and especially females might think Richard is a cute thing at times. It’s likely the first-ever seasick tiger. Before drinking water, he would fiddle with the bucket like a big cat. Then he climbs on a rope alongside, opening his eyes wide to beg Pi, who’s taking up an axe, to spare his life. ... Yet the film is not like those animal fables such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and all films about dogs. The Bengal tiger looks fearsome yet miserable. Throughout the film, it does not show the slightest sign of humanity.

  According to the film, Richard and Pi have complicated relationships, which turn out a compromise based on fear and survival instinct. For Pi, loneliness or solitude is something more lethal than hunger and other marine dangers. Without Pi, Richard would have starved or thirsted to death. Pi says perhaps Richard could never be tamed, but he would succumb under the God’s will. Or it can said that the beast surrender to a stronger force that defeats him.

  Even so, Richard Park does not lose its prestige as the king of the forest. When the tiger lies in Pi’s arms, that means Richard is just too tired. And when the animal responds readily and leaves the cannibal island for the lifeboat, that means Richard knows he’ll die faster and feel lonelier if he doesn’t leave. At last, when he’s starved to a skeleton and staggers at the mouth of the forest, he simply walks away without glancing back at Pi once. It means he has never taken Pi as his friend.

  Perhaps many guys expect Ang Lee could let the protagonist look back and return to nature. However, the director did not do that as expected, but provided the audience with a depressing end. No one could channel his emotion when he or she sees the end of the film. That’s the bitter truth. Or perhaps the tiger itself is part of Pi’s brutality. When he finally gets rescued, the part of his ego vanishes tracelessly.

  Of course, we tend to believe there is a Richard Parker in this world. Pi loves him and so do we.

  When it comes to discussing the film, 3D is something inevitable. James Cameron overwhelms the audience with Avatar’s gee-whiz 3D effects because it’s an action movie. Martin Scorsese unleashes the stunning spectacles of film magic by shooting Hugo. But Ang Lee is different. For him, 3D is a movie language serving the story and characters, a device of sentimentalizing. It seems right especially in the scene of shipwreck.

  In most people’s memories, the most iconic shipwreck scene ever shot belongs to Titanic. In that film, Cameron demonstrates all facets of humanity in the third person perspective. And everyone would burst into cries or tears when the band’s swan song starts. But the shipwreck scene in this film is very different.

  First of all, Ang Lee represents the entire incident all the time from a first person perspective. At first, Pi exclaims that the windstorm is “a stroke of Lord of Storms;” then he tries to dive into the cargo hold filled with water but fails; at last, he is carried up and down by the windy waves. In this process, the remarkable 3D effects are nothing but the rushing rainwater and galloping waves. But the audience feels as if they were bumping on the sea. What’s more, some guys may feel seasick.

  It’s more mind-blowing that when a huge wave arrives, Pi sinks into the seabed. He raises his head, only to see gushes of rolling waves. And when he turns his head, he sees the entire cargo ship being engulfed by the seawater while gleaming dimly. At this moment, even time nearly stops. Both the protagonist and the audience have no way to channel their emotions. It is a constraint typical of Ang Lee, a sentimental shock, an on-screen disaster worth being chronicled by history.

  The director and cinematographer recaptured beautiful sights like calm, turquoise sea, rosy morning sun and starry night sea. In any sight, dream and reality become indistinguishable from each other. Ang Lee created a vast sea of a great field of depth with 3D camera, where there is nothing but a floating boat. Alas, how tiny human is!

  As the sentiment is set, those surreal sights become a foil for the reality. Since there is no iPhone or LOMO, what Pi should do is not take a photo or post a message on weibo. He should think about how to deal with the beast onboard. And even the awesome take of a flying fish is not considered gee-whiz as the fight between Pi and Richard does not end anyway.

  With regard to the film, we’re inclined to focus on the director himself. All his films have the same motif—“father-son relations” and “communication.” Also, this motif nearly pervades the entire film. As is known to all, Ang Lee himself was born in a patriarchal family and thus has undertaken all his father’s wishes. Yet he chose to make films.

  The protagonist’s rebellion against his father comes in full play in the first half hour of the film. Lee’s own father is an atheist and so is Richard’s father. He believes in science, “If you believe in everything, you believe in nothing.” The father feels furious at his son feeding the tiger privately. Such rude attitude deprives Pi of the luxury of “all fun in life.”

  Ang Lee concluded that such father-and-son conflict arises from failed communication attempt. So, his each and every film focuses on communication, be it between father and son, different humans or various cultures.

  Life of Pi, for instance, focuses on communication between different religions, between human and animal. “If we're going to live together, we have to learn to communicate.” And the most classic line of the film says, “In the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking the moment to say goodbye.” That suggests the director’s apology for his absence at the last moment of his father. When his father was lingering on the verge of death, Ang Lee was busy shooting Brokeback Mountain. But when he finished the film and went back, his father had passed away. That’s the greatest regret of his life.

  When Ang Lee was shooting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, father told him, “Don’t overcolour or oversentimentalize.” Later on, the director sighed, “I’m like Yu Shu Lien without, but actually like Jen Yu within.” In his eyes, Life of Pi is much closer to his true life any other film. In this sense, it’s his self-portrait. From beginning to end, he himself is the tiger called Richard Parker.

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