About halfway through Ang Lee’s extraordinary 2001 movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, just as the pace is quickening and the plot is intensifying, we suddenly find ourselves in an empty desert. This is a flashback, but we do not yet know this. A caravan inches along, and in one of the carriages we see a character we know: the young aristocrat-cum-secret-martial-arts-master Jen, who sits quietly with her mother. Suddenly, bandits attack, and everything is in disarray. Their leader rides past Jen’s carriage, and reaches toward its window and grabs her comb.
Jen jumps from the carriage, finds a horse, and pursues him across the desert. She fires arrows, and he ducks. She shows off her martial arts skills by taking down a couple of his men, and he is impressed, but he doesn’t give back her comb. She continues to chase him until she passes out from dehydration. The screen goes black, and when she comes to, she finds that he has brought her to safety and found her food and water, but she does not forgive him. She wants her comb, and the chase continues.
Sometimes she scores victories; he, the rogue bandit who knows desert life, does not quite take care of her but always leads her. Over and over again, she becomes exhausted, the screen goes black, and then she awakes. At one point, right after waking, she jumps on him: it’s a surprise attack, ostensibly to get back her comb, but a moment later they are kissing.
What is it about this brief sequence that captures romantic love so powerfully? How is it that it is as or even more acute than Lee’s own Brokeback Mountain, an entire movie dedicated to a painstakingly detailed, perfectly realistic love story? Crouching Tiger’s characters are hardly rounded, there is almost no dialogue, and yet it is an unforgettable sequence, one of the most moving I have ever seen. It is a bit mysterious how this little passage—and I think we all know passages like these—actually works, but I think it may have something to do with how a generally “realistic” movie suddenly seems to forget itself and become somehow richly imaginary, at once truthful to life and entirely unreal. This can happen in fictional writing, too, but it has uniquely cinematic possibilities, and Lee knows it: he understands the subtleties and emotional possibilities of spectacle—the open spaces, the repeated blackouts, the memorable image of chasing.
I include all this not or not only because I so love it but also as an introduction to Lee’s new movie Life of Pi, which is not a masterpiece on the level of Crouching Tiger, but which makes similar use of this sort of unreal spectacle (for lack of a better term). Indeed, its source material, Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, seems perfect for Lee’s sensibility: it tells the story of a boy caught on a lifeboat alone with a Bengal tiger for 227 days, and as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly fictional.
Pi Patel (played for most of the movie by Suraj Sharma), our hero, is a true believer: he is a Christian, a Hindu, and a Muslim, all at once. We meet him as he is first picking up these faiths as a young boy, in the pleasant city of Pondicherry, India, where his father owns the city zoo (the movie’s opening credits are set against beautiful shots of the animals). The beginning of both the movie and novel is ponderous, taking time to track Pi’s youth, but it is not slow or boring. We see Pi at school, with his first girlfriend, with his family; and then, when he is 16, his father announces that the family is moving to Canada—on a freight ship, with all the animals. But the ship sinks in the Pacific, and soon Pi is alone on a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker), a hyena, a dying zebra, and an orangutan.
In lesser hands what follows might be insufferably boring. Fortunately, Lee renders it beautifully, both through his painstaking development of the relationship between boy and tiger, which is the movie’s heart, and simply through the spectacles of open sea and Bengal tiger. I did not see the movie in 3D, but no matter: the cinematography, by Claudio Miranda, is stunning, and Richard Parker is digitally rendered, well, ferociously. He seemed to me as real as Pi.
Slowly and with great courage, Pi learns to live with Richard Parker. They have their separate sections of the boat, and they develop a sort of mutual respect for one another. They keep each other alive. (Richard Parker never gets hungry enough to eat Pi, or if he does, he is by then too respectful or too weak to do so.) Is Richard Parker really a character? I don’t know. He is a person as much as any animal is a person, which is to say that he both is and isn’t: he doesn’t speak, and he might remorselessly kill and eat our hero at any moment, but we can empathize with him, we can see when he is hungry or happy or playful or territorial.
It is a surreal situation, this, and soon it becomes increasingly fantastical. Lee handles things superbly, with all the delicacy he showed in Crouching Tiger: somehow Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker perfectly reflects and grounds the story’s increasing absurdity (I mean that word in its most serious sense). My favorite scene is when a school of flying fish suddenly fill the sky, hurtling into and past the lifeboat, hitting Richard Parker and Pi, a divine gift.
But there is a sizable problem with the novel. It has a very didactic message about faith/story: that we ought to believe, both in the power of story and, if it suits us, in God as well, for belief’s own sake. That may go over well with the many these days who see faith in precisely those terms, but congratulating an audience for what it already believes is not serious inquiry into really anything at all. The story’s glib ending, which I won’t spoil here, hammers home this point without even the vaguest pretense of subtlety, and it is a shame for the book as well as the movie. Everything is tied up too neatly. The human (and animal) messiness evident in Pi’s anthropomorphizing relationship with Richard Parker is sadly scrubbed away, and the result is a sorry shallowness.< Lee seems to know where this story’s heart really lies, though. As Martel’s ending smugly wraps itself up, Lee, in a powerful moment of deviation from the novel, takes us for a moment back to an earlier shot, a shot of Richard Parking walking slowly away into a forest. The tiger does not look back, and when he is gone, the shot becomes black-and-white. It is another moment—like that one in Crouching Tiger—where Lee has expressively opened his movie to the imagination, where he has wonderfully let its emotions escape their bounds—and what better way to capture life for Pi after his ordeal, after Richard Parker, than through a world drained of color?