Having achieved artistic and financial success in surprisingly different genres, the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee has once again pulled off the nearly impossible. His first English speaking film SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, 1995, was a delightful adaptation that balanced the spirit and mirth of Jane Austen with a deeper, almost melancholy sensitivity and was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning one for Emma Thompson's Best Adapted Screenplay.
In 1999 Lee created an exotic world unfamiliar to most Americans in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, an epic martial arts epic that lifted the genre into both art and popular culture. His biggest gamble was using the Chinese language, instead of English. His risk paid off with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and three Oscars in the technical categories.
But perhaps his greatest gamble was 2005's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, an unprecedented and frank look at an abiding love between two macho cowboys. Lee won the Oscar for Best Director and the film was nominated for eight more. The performances, especially those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall, were heart-rending and sincere, mostly due to Lee's direction.
THE LIFE OF PI, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, proved to be Ang Lee's greatest challenge. To tell a story where most of the action is placed on the high seas with only a boy and a hungry tiger seemed daunting, but Lee upped the stakes by using 3-D. Only a few films have used the process seriously, most notably AVATAR. Following the novel's structure, Lee uses a frame work where the middle-aged Pi tells the story of his strange past. When he was a child, Pi and his family owned a zoo in India. Under political pressure, they decided to move to Canada with their animals. Early in the voyage a violent storm sinks the ship and only Pi escapes; that is, only Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a voracious tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly dispenses with the other animals.
So the great heart of LIFE OF PI is the struggle between a 16 year old boy and a hungry tiger together on a raft under every possible weather condition. Director Lee embraces this challenge with 3-D, not the kind that hurls objects at viewers but one that pulls them into the scene so that they feel as though they are on that raft. This dynamic involvement lifts this story to a higher level. The audience not only sees a sea filled with illuminated jelly fish shimmering in a heavenly aura but they feel surrounded by them. A similar feeling occurs when a whale rises close to the raft at night. Lee maintains an incredible level of tension between boy and tiger while suffusing the screen with beauty. One theme is that Pi manages to survive by keeping the tiger alive. This gives him purpose. Part of his drive to stay alive comes from his deeply felt religious beliefs in...Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity. Ang Lee makes all this and more believable and even transformative. See LIFE OF PI in a theater in 3-D for its full impact.