Life of Pi offers food for thought

2012-12-07 03:43:01 GMT2012-12-07 11:43:01(Beijing Time)  China Daily
(Photo/China daily)(Photo/China daily)

Ang Lee's Life of Pi has made everyone a film critic in China.

There have been more than 4 million Weibo posts about the film, dissecting every minutia.

A day after the premiere, netizens dug up such details as the name of the tiger - Richard Parker - comes from a shipwreck victim in fictional and true accounts, including an actual 17-year-old cabin boy who was cannibalized by his companions in a life raft.

Netizens also interpreted the carnivorous island. Some contend it represents the Hindu God Vishnu. Others argue it symbolizes Pi's mother. And many say it was just a fantastical landscape.

One Weibo user even tracked down a photo of Lee as a young boy and paired it with a photo of Suraj Sharma, the actor whom Li chose from among more than 3,000 boys to play Pi. The physical resemblance led her to conclude that Lee relates to Pi, who survives much desperation.

It has been a long time since a film has generated so much discussion among Chinese viewers. The last was Jiang Wen's 2010 Let the Bullets Fly, which triggered debates about revolution and modern Chinese history.

Ang Lee's reputation is perhaps the foremost reason for the film's popularity in China.

While mainland filmmakers have been obsessed with the Oscars, Lee grabbed two for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain.

So, Life of Pi was the talk of the town before its premiere.

Social media also played a role.

Weibo is among China's fastest and most accessible platforms.

Related: Tigers' survival under threat

This spells disaster for lame flicks, because the word spreads instantly, and the reverse happens for quality films.

This quality is highlighted with Life of Pi, because the film deals with many serious issues, such as faith and morality.

While many viewers saw only the story's surface layer - the relationship between the boy and tiger - opinion leaders divined more beneath.

They shared their interpretations, leading many who were shocked or confused to the theaters to verify or challenge these assertions. Their participation in the discussion has made it even more extensive.

Finally, few films in Chinese theaters are as intellectually challenging and, simultaneously, emotionally stirring.

Some, such as Inception, fulfill the first criterion. Others like Titanic fall under the second category. But Life of Pi fits both - and does so well.

It explores many issues that wouldn't be fully addressed in domestic films.

For example, many viewers discuss the protagonist's attitude toward religion - an issue that local filmmakers rarely touch.

The subtlety needed to deal with the topic under censorship is one thing. But another is elaborating upon it in a commercial movie - an undertaking that requires not only exquisite filmmaking skills but also the filmmaker's personal thoughts and insights.

The mainland's contemporary film industry is still in its infancy, and its immaturity has led to a myopic focus on the box office.

Films in Chinese theaters entertain but seldom provoke thought.

The charm of Pi is that it offers profound possibilities to those who want to think beyond the storyline, while working perfectly well as mere entertainment for those who don't.

China's filmgoers are generally divided into two schools on this.

One believes the other goes too far in reading between the lines, while the second camp believes the first doesn't look deep enough.

This debate has intrinsic value because it coaxes people to voice their perspectives in open spaces.

Perhaps there is no such thing as excessive film analysis after all.

As Pi says at the film's end: "It's your story now."

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