Three directors tried and failed to make a film from Yann Martel’s mystical novel Life of Pi before Taiwanese-born Ang Lee took on the challenge.
The result is a masterpiece of creative vision and technical wizardry – this in a film which mainly consists of two castaways, a teenage Indian boy and a man-eating tiger, alone and adrift on the ocean.
Ang Lee reportedly spent $100 million in his search for perfection. He auditioned 3000 young Indians in the search for his leading man and ended up with 17-year-old Suraj Sharma, who had never acted before and couldn’t even swim.
Sharma was brilliant in the crucial role of the boy who lost his entire family and his beloved animals when the ship in which they were travelling was wrecked in a violent storm.
His mental and physical growth as he fought for survival is the central theme of the film – his sorrow as he realised he was the only survivor of the shipwreck; his horror when an angry tiger emerged from under the lifeboat’s canvas; his faith that he would somehow overcome his trials; and his ingenuity in dealing with one problem after another.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the special effects team created the film’s glorious 3D images – reflections in the mirror-like sea, flying fish hurling themselves at the boy and the tiger, a whale suddenly breeching, an island populated by hordes of cute little meerkats.
To deal with the difficulties of filming on the open ocean, Ang Lee had an enormous wave tank, 70m long and 30m wide, built on an abandoned airport in his home country of Taiwan.
Neither director nor camera team had worked in 3D before and their work set new standards for films in this medium, as did the remarkable computer generated images, specially the CGI tiger – fearsome at first, then haggard and starving – which appears incredibly real.
The story starts in Pondicherry, India, where Pi lives with his family in a small private zoo. The family, with some of the animals, are shipwrecked on their way to emigrate to Canada.
Ang Lee, director of features as diverse as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, has demonstrated yet again his versatility in this latest not-to-be-missed film.
Life of Pi is now showing at Luna Leederville and Luna Outdoor.