What life is all about? How do we cope with the changes and challenges that come into our way any time? If there is any creator god, whatever its name, who claims to love everything it creates, why does hardship and suffering ever exist in the human world? If we were chosen and blessed, why are we put to test, big or small, every day?
For centuries and even millennia, these questions have bothered not only philosophers but also ordinary people throughout the world.
But these questions are by no means easy to answer. The best solution may also vary from person to person, depending on their personalities and courses of life. It takes most of us a lifetime to work out the most suitable way by trial and error.
These are also the questions brought forward by Ang Lee's Life of Pi, his first 3D film. I haven't had the chance to read the novel by Yann Martel, and therefore have no idea how truthful the film adaptation is vis-à-vis the original text. Yet its content is so rich and powerful that I felt like having read a 300-page book within two hours.
Undoubtedly the visual impact of Life of Pi is awesome and mesmerising. However, it is neither about the 3D effects nor the cinematography. It is all about how to present a boy and a Bengal tiger drifting across the Pacific on a lifeboat without any dullness or boredom to the audience's eye and mind. Think of how many scenes and shoots it takes to compile a 127-minute film and you will sort of understand what a remarkable achievement Director Lee and his crew have attained.
Like his previous works beginning from The Wedding Banquet, what Director Lee's films appeal to me most is his piercing insights into various aspects of human life. Be they frustration, inhibition, oppression or, in the case of Life of Pi, the existence and survival of human life. These are the questions that have been pondered and discussed for centuries. These are the questions central and intrinsic to human existence. He is one of the few renowned directors of the world who have the acumen and ability to weave heart-touching artistic and humanistic elements so skilfully and seamlessly into commercial productions. His extraordinary sensitivity to cultural differences and delicacies also enables him to embrace genres and settings of a cultural spectrum far wider than many others.
While my discussions with friends often focus on the symbolism of the Bengal tiger and the uninhabited island of which the silhouette resembles a lying Buddha, the plot is equally inspiring. Many aspects of the plot are packed with messages and moral lessons to be pondered. For example, Pi's attitude towards religion is far more tolerant and utilitarian, if I may, than many other monotheists. He is open and receptive to new ideas, but he never drifts away from Hinduism under which he was brought up. Even though he is very much interested in Jesus, he thanks the Hindu creator god for introducing him to the Son of Lord, rather than the other way round. When he is desperate and helpless, he prays to the Hindu god than others. I take it as an important reminder of respecting and adhering to your own roots. You can always learn and embrace new things, but you should never forget who you are and where you come from. Denying your own heritage is essentially rejecting your own existence. As the film presents, ultimately it is his belief that enables Pi to survive. His belief empowers him to cope with the changes and challenges after the shipwreck. It also gives him courage to deal with and overcome his own weaknesses, and makes him a stronger person than he used to be.
More than a week has passed since I watched Life of Pi and I still am somewhat overwhelmed by the questions raised and messages conveyed. Having exposed to various interpretations of the metaphor and symbolism in the film, I am not quite sure which is correct. Perhaps again there is no absolute answer, and it is not really important to know the truth defined by the author, director or playwright. At the end of the day, the truth actually depends on which way you would like to see it, just as the two stories Pi told the Japanese investigators of the shipwreck. It is a matter of choice, rather than absolutism. And this points to the root of polytheism in Asia, where traditional cultures are more open, flexible and accommodative, as opposed to monotheism of the West that emphasises absolute, single authority of The One.