Life of Pi

‘There are some unwritten rules in the film industry,’ says Ang Lee , the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, discussing the difficulties of making his latest film. ‘Don’t work with kids, don’t work with animals, and don’t work with water. This film includes all three of those elements.’

Out this month, Life of Pi is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by Canadian writer Yann Martel. His story of a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi who, in a freak accident, gets stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with an orangutan, a hyena, a wounded zebra and a Bengal tiger, makes for an epic book plot. But rendering this tale of the high seas onto the big screen was never going to be easy – even for a pro like Lee.

‘Water is the toughest part to shoot,’ the Taiwanese-American filmmaker muses. ‘It is very difficult to capture correctly on film; using computers to create the proper effect of the transparency and refraction of water is very expensive and needs lots of planning.’

And then there was the non-trivial matter of keeping the world’s animal welfare groups happy: ‘We had animal protection organisations from America and Taiwan checking on what we were doing all the time and writing reports. Later on, some Indian groups questioned us. I explained to them how we created the CGI, but they didn’t believe it was a computer animation; they thought we were mistreating the animal. So, we had to email them details of our production process to help them understand how we made each scene.’

Such issues go part of the way towards explaining why the film took such a long time to make. It took Lee, with the help of a crew of 3,000 people, nearly four years to complete. And before he signed on to helm this odyssey, 20th Century Fox, the studio that owned the rights to the book, had already spent six years trying to get other directors on board. Among those previously approached for the task were Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had proved his magical realist clout with Amélie, as well as M Night Shyamalan, of Sixth Sense fame, whose interest was first piqued by the fact that Pi’s journey begins in Pondicherry, the former French territory in India where the director himself was born.

But aside from the practicalities of tigers and tidal waves, these filmmakers were no doubt also put off by the more nebulous challenge of bringing to life a story that more than 7 million readers worldwide had already pictured in their own minds. As the Wachowski Brothers’ recent take on British author David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlashas demonstrated, a popular tome doesn’t automatically translate into on-screen success. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shyamalan explained why he walked away from the project, admitting, ‘I was hesitant because the book has kind of a twist ending. And I was concerned that as soon as you put my name on it, everybody would have a different experience.’

Given Lee’s previous achievements in transforming the written word into motion pictures (see Sense and Sensibility, the Jane Austen adaptation, and Lust, Caution, the sexy, wartime thriller based on a novella by Eileen Chang), and his ability to shine in almost any genre (from martial arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain), he might seem uniquely up to the task presented by Life of Pi. The book’s author, Martel, seems to think so, having declared in a promotional video for the film, ‘Ang Lee is the perfect choice. He has the capacity to do both the small and intimate and the large and spectacular.’

Perhaps one of the trickiest parts of this book for Lee is the internal ruminations of the main character. For this is more than just a simple fable of a shipwreck. The multi-layered story weaves deep philosophical questions into its tapestry, including ponderings on the existence of the divine and Pi’s memories of life before the storm: growing up in Pondicherry, where, as a somewhat precocious young child he practised Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all at once. As Lee himself recognises, ‘The hardest part is getting to the essence of the book.’

These profound topics are explored in a simplistic, yet penetrating manner. Because of the esoteric character of this novel, Lee’s decision to shoot Life of Pi in 3D – a form more associated with blockbusters such as Transformers than with more thoughtful films – may surprise some. There are some action scenes, most notably the shipwreck, but these are few, fewer even than in the book itself, according to Lee (‘I’ve basically stuck to the original book, except the bloody scenes, which I’ve toned down or implied’) and much of the film is centred on Pi’s calm but lonely hours spent adrift.

Cynics could see this as taking the quick route to big revenues – especially in China, where five out of the top ten highest-grossing films in 2011 were 3D releases. But Lee has at least made a proper commitment to the medium, shooting live in 3D with stereoscopic cameras, instead of adding 3D effects in post-production (as in The Amazing Spider-Man). The end result has the thumbs-up from the 3D master himself, James Cameron (whose company actually provided the technology for this film). He has been quoted in several media outlets, enthusing, ‘Life of Pi breaks the paradigm that 3D has to be some big, action-fantasy spectacle, superhero movie.’

From reports by those who’ve seen previews, it appears that the visual miracles performed by 3D in this film come not so much in the big action scenes but more in the small natural wonders: a hummingbird floating through the movie theatre, flying fish, a whale leaping over the boat and the spectacle of the Pacific Ocean mirroring the sunset sky above. Critics have been left astounded, with some predicting this film will be ‘the new Avatar’ and others tipping it for the Oscars (well, it wouldn’t be Lee’s first).

Will Life of Pi live up to the hype? Will it be a giant step forward for a new type of 3D film? Fortunately, it is family-friendly enough to make its way to the Chinese box office, so you can go and decide for yourself.

First appeared in Time Out Beijing on November 27, 2012.