‘Life of Pi,’ a spiritual journey

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There is a moment in “Life of Pi” when the titular protagonist, having recounted one fanciful and one literal version of the same story, asks a novelist which version he prefers. Without hesitating, the novelist confirms that the fanciful story is by far his favorite.  After sitting down with Ang Lee, the director of “Life of Pi,” one gets the feeling that he also has a predilection for the fanciful.

When I first saw him, he was quietly making his way through the hotel lobby,  quiet and demure. In the electric crowd of aging bankers and tweeting journalists, his calm seemed quite out of place; to them, he must have been barely noticeable. But when I asked him about life and cinema during our interview, Lee’s eyes burned with an almost spiritual love for the art of storytelling.

Much like Pi, when asked a question, Lee gives long, detailed answers. Although his speech is peppered with witty, colourful anecdotes, he never veers off topic; his speech is crafted like his cinema, carefully and delicately with an almost fanatical attention to emotion and detail.

“Life of Pi” is a film about the art of storytelling. Its first act of storytelling is, rather appropriately, a prologue of sorts explaining how Pi earned his name. It’s a fanciful and ridiculous tale involving a globetrotting swimming instructor in search of the world’s most beautiful swimming pool. He finds it in Paris at the Piscine Molitor. Pi is named Piscine, after this pool, and for homophonous reasons (obvious to anyone who took French in high school), his name is shortened to Pi. The anecdote is alive with intense, ridiculous characters whose muscles bend and bulge like anime characters in Lee’s 3-D-enhanced lens. Lee gives his flashbacks the rich Technicolor palette that might have been assembled from the colorful debris of Holi, the Indian festival of color.

From its first frame, “Life of Pi” has a lyrical and articulate visual voice that is more than capable of holding its own against the literary voice of Yann Martel’s novel. Unlike in many novel-to-film adaptations, Lee and Martel had a good working relationship and contributed to early versions of the screenplay. However, Lee conceded that at some point during pre-production, Martel had to let go and “pray to the movie god.”  His frequent association of spiritual deities with filmmaking reveals something of the simplistic spirituality that Lee brings to film adaptation, a process that after the runaway success of 2006’s “Brokeback Mountain” Lee can claim to have had some success with. “A movie is a movie,” he says. “It works in its own ways.”

Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have turned to special effects tools to bridge the gap between novel and film. Recently, the steady progress of digital effects has left us jaded and bored, like a story to which we know the ending.  Sure, Gollum and Spider-Man get a bit more uncannily realistic every time their spindly frames grace the silver screen, but it feels like a long time since anyone has used digital effects to make a strong artistic statement. “Life of Pi” takes the uncanny photorealism of modern visual effects and turns it against itself — toward surrealism and absurdity. Ridiculous subjects like an island of floating trees, underwater zoo animals and a swarm of flying fish are all created with the realism one has come to expect from the likes of James Cameron or Peter Jackson. Like a painting by Salvador Dali or M.C. Escher, the images are implausible and surreal yet rendered with such slavish attention to detail that they drive a gulf between what appears to be real and what filmgoers intuitively know to be false.

Considering “Life of Pi” concerns a boy’s journey from home, for Lee, the idea of home is something of an elusive concept. Born to Chinese Nationalist parents in Taiwan, Lee managed to secure a place at NYU’s prestigious Tisch film program in 1980. Unable to find work for several years after graduation, he submitted two screenplays to Taiwan’s national screenwriting competition — they won first and second place. Since then, Lee has filmed in Taiwan, China and the United States. His best-known works, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain,” each won him Academy Awards, including Best Director for the latter — he is the first and only non-Caucasian to win the award in its 84-year history.

I asked Ang Lee how he manages to cross cultures and continents so easily between films. Lee searches for a broad variety of locations; “the further away, the better,” he said. But it’s really the story, rather than the location, that must excite him. “It has to hit me on a gut level,” he said. After finishing the book, Lee cried, but not for any of its emotional qualities. “The book doesn’t have any emotion for me — it’s existential,” Lee checked himself. “Well, existential questions make me emotional … I’m the kind of guy who can cry over Schopenhauer.”

Part of the challenge with “Life of Pi” was translating a deeply philosophical book into a compelling piece of cinema. “That’s the difficulty: How do I make people care?” said Lee.  In “Life of Pi,” and indeed throughout Lee’s life and career, locations, cultures and people are united more by their universal, emotional experiences, like love, loss and revenge, than they are divided by their external appearances.

Spirituality isn’t something that a man like Ang Lee would take lightly. Directing a film that deals with a boy so intensely spiritual that he tries to juggle all three of the Abrahamic faiths and Hinduism at the same time, Lee deftly manages his seemingly impossible source material. He accomplishes a rare feat for a film of this scale — a film that takes in all the vastness of the world’s largest ocean from the confines of a tiny lifeboat and through the awestruck eyes of a boy and his tiger companion.

Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]