Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi

Ang Lee is a lyrical story teller. From Crouching Tiger to BrokebackMountain, he has never failed to engage the emotions of his audience. But this is special, because the character of Pi is also a superb storyteller, so it’s a bit like Ang Lee looking at himself and telling us why he makes the films he does and tells the stories he does.

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Pi and Richard Parker – the most famous image from the film

Pi has the ability to recreate his world. Christened Piscine after an elegant French swimming pool, he becomes the butt of endless ‘pissing jokes’ at school. So he rechristens himself Pi, and becomes an expert on that curious equation, memorising every digit in its long, long fraction.

Pi is a character we can easily love. Played by Suraj Sharma, he is engaging and charming, awkward and questing. He is looking for God, trying on religions like new clothes, much to his father’s annoyance. “Don’t let the stories and pretty lights fool you, boys,” he tells his sons. “Religion is darkness.” Still, he believes that anything is possible. He owns a local zoo, but when funding runs dry, he decides to sell the animals and take his family to Canada.

Pi is shattered. He has just met the love of his life, and though he promises to return for her, he cannot really know if that will happen. He and his family and an assortment of animals to be sold leave India on a container ship.

It’s no spoiler to say that the rest of the movie is about Pi stuck on a lifeboat with a very angry and seasick tiger called Richard Parker. (If you look up that name,  it is a clue, but not until after you have seen the film, please). After all, those are the images that fill the trailer. But there is so much more to this story – it becomes more absorbing as the little boat wanders across the ocean. Pi is subjected to terror, and beauty, the like of which he has never known – and we are also living it with him, never really sure what is going to happen next, in thrall to that splendid, ferocious animal that shares his journey.

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A movie full of beauty and wonder

It is gorgeous to look at – the cinematographer is Claudio Miranda – but more than that it is a journey of the mind, as Pi’s story unfolds. We are left with questions, and one question above all – which story do we prefer? Yes, Ang Lee can tell his stories anyway he chooses, but he chooses one way, rather than another. Which story would we rather hear? Lee’s poetic tales, with swordfighters dancing through the trees, two gentle men in love with each other, a fierce tiger sharing a lifeboat with a young man – or the truth? I’ll take the tiger. Most of us, and so God continues to exist in our hearts, even though we grow further from religion.

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