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Film Review

Life of Pi

Few contemporary film makers have made as many fine films as Ang Lee. Born in China, reared in Taiwan as his family fled the Communist revolution, Ang Lee came to America in 1979 as a young man, determined to study and make films. And did he ever! The quality and diversity of his films over the past 20 years have been astonishing, and have earned him 27 Academy nominations and 8 Oscars, plus numerous significant foreign awards. His films are characterized by memorable cinematography and strong character development, and many became popular successes, not just for art house audiences. It doesn't seem at all exaggerated to call Ang Lee a great film maker. He is only 58, so should have many good films in him still. His best known:

The Wedding Banquet (1993) Gay son marries to conform to Taiwanese culture.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) Delicious: retired chef trying to connect with his three daughters through food.
Sense and Sensibility (1995) Beautiful adaptation of Jane Austin's novel.
The Ice Storm (1997) Powerful closely observed disintegraton of a 1970's American suburban family.
Ride with the Devil (1999) Bleeding Kansas at the beginning of the Civil War.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Spectacular martial arts, with flair.
Hulk (2003) Every good director is entitled to one dumb mid career film.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) Transcendent; love between two Wyoming sheepherders.
Lust, Caution (2007) Beautiful thriller: an affair between two unlikely people in Shanghai during WW ll.
Life of Pi (2012) Just released; story of a 19 year old boy in a shipwreck, sharing his lifeboat with a tiger.

Lee has taken Yann Martel's recent prize winning novel, Life of Pi, to the screen in spectacular fashion. It's the story of Piscine, a boy who grew up in a middle class Indian family that owned a zoo, in what seems like an Edenic setting. His father named him for a famous Parisian swimming pool, and of course was teased mercilessly by his schoolmates for his name, which they pronounced as "pissing". He cleverly begins to use the name Pi, showing his class the origin and calculations of the mathematical constant. Although his father was an atheist, Pi was always fascinated by religions. Born Hindu, then "thank you Vishnu for leading me to Christ", and later, studying Kabbalah. Pi is fascinated by the animals, and one day his father teaches him a brutal lesson about the savagery of nature. But the political climate is changing in India, and when Pi is 19, his father decides to move the entire family and the zoo animals to Canada. Their departure seems metaphoric for the expulsion from Eden. Pi's haunting story is told by the adult Pi to a failed writer who has been referred to Pi to hear a story "that would make you believe in God". The family and the animals go on board a Japanese freighter that encounters a terrible storm in the mid Pacific. The freighter sinks, and soon Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a badly hurt zebra, a sad orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. All of this is just the beginning of a powerful, mystical story about the struggle to survive, the fragility and strength of life, and the power of faith. The majority of the film consists of Pi and Richard Parker's journey together in the lifeboat. It is a complicated relationship, and each ultimately needs the other to survive. Yet the tiger has definitely not been anthropomorphized; he is always tiger. There are two brief violent scenes that are painful to watch, and not appropriate for younger children, but this is not gratuitous violence. Ang Lee's character, Pi, celebrates the beneficence of the gods, yet the take away from the story seemed to be that the gods are unseeing, and that life is random and often savage. Then, a very unexpected twist upends much of what we thought.

Like all Ang Lee films, the cinematography is spectacular, here done with a great deal of cutting edge CGI technology. So many of the scenes are astonishing, from night time skies to a whale breaching, and much more, but the most dramatic is Richard Parker himself. He is so real that It is nearly impossible to believe that this tiger is a CGI creation. There is magic here on the screen, and not just with the tiger. Colors in many scenes seem ultra bright, but not unrealistic. The film was shot in 3D, and currently screening in 3D, but will be released later for conventional viewing. In my opinion, the 3D is more of a gimmick, and really doesn't add anything to the film. In fact the tinted glasses tend to dull the screen's vivid colors. There were some scenes where I would simply look at the screen without the glasses, and the images were still crisp. But other times the glasses were needed to avoid the blurring seen in scenes with dramatic 3D images. Pi, as a young man, is played by Suraj Sharma, unknown to American audiences, but excellent. Pi, as middle aged, is played by the well known Indian actor, Irrfan Khan. Music is subdued but lovely. The story and images of Life of Pi haunted me for days, and I loved what Ang Lee has done here. Not perfect, but wonderful, and the sheer beauty of this 125 minute film is staggering. Definitely something to be seen on the big screen, 3D or not. Just opened widely, including the Kabuki, AMC Van Ness, Balboa, Presidio, and others.

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