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Movie Review: Life Of Pi

Pi Patel and the tiger Richard Parker learn to survive in Life Of Pi.

Pi Patel and the tiger Richard Parker learn to survive in the Pacific Ocean in Life Of Pi.

“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”

Life Of Pi is a novel by Yann Martel you may have already read or not. It now hits the big screen just eleven years after its publishing and is directed by Ang Lee. How well does it entertain?

Pi Patel is a man of fascination for a young Montreal writer. The writer was refered to him by a man in India named Mamaji and one day he’s fortunate to meet Pi in his own Montreal home and he tells him his story:

Pi Patel was born in India and named after the legendary French pool Piscine Molitor. Having the name Piscine Patel was not easy as he would have to endure taunts from his classmates. Then on the first day of school at the age of eleven, he decided he would be known as Pi from now on. He’d even try to recite all the numbers that make up pi to get it through to their heads.

Pi grew up with a wealthy family in India. His family owned a zoo and he experienced a love for the animals. Nevertheless he was taught to fear the wild ones. The zookeeper gave Pi a lesson in wild animals as a child after he tried to feed a bengal tiger who is named Richard Parker by the zookeeper.

Also during his childhood, Pi developed an interest in religion and experiencing God. He was born and raised a Hindu but would soon experience Roman Catholicism and Islam. As a teen he falls in love with a girl named Anandi. However all that has to change as Pi’s family has lost the zoo to land owners. The family decides to move to Canada and sell the zoo animals.

The family travel across the Pacific in a Japanese freighter named the Tsimtsum. The trip is mostly calm except for having a bigoted cook. However tragedy strikes as the ship is caught in a storm in the middle of the Marianas Trench. The ship sinks taking Pi’s family and the crew with them. Pi miraculously survives and manages to get himself in a lifeboat. Pi’s lifeboat overcomes the storm but there’s one surprise: his lifeboat includes a hyena, a zebra and orangutan. The hyena soon kills both the zebra and the orangutan only to find himself killed by the tiger Richard Parker who comes out of nowhere.

So that’s all it is: a lifeboat, Pi and the tiger Richard Parker. He’s able to retrieve the food and water supplies from the lifeboat. He builds a raft tied to the boat to keep a distance from Richard Parker. Pi soon loses much of the food supplies after a whale dives near them so Pi is left with no choice but to fish and collect rain water for Richard Parker and himself. The fish was hard as Pi is a vegetarian through his Hindu upbringing. Over time he realizes that Richard Parker is as vital to his survival as Pi is to Richard Parker’s.

After months at sea they find an island. It seems like a relief. It’s a floating island full of animals, a forest and fresh water. It seems like relief until they learn that the ‘fresh’ water turns acidic in the night and the island has carnivorous plants. They must return to sailing.

The lifeboat does reach land: the coast of Mexico after a total of 227 days. Richard Parker discovers a jungle for him to live in. Pi hopes Richard Parker will acknowledge him before entering but instead walks into the jungle without looking back. Mexican rescuers discover a weak exhausted Pi crying because Richard Parker walked away without him. Recovering in his hospital bed, Japanese insurance agents ask Pi for the story but don’t buy the story with the animals. Pi then gives a second story consisting of his mother, a sailor with a broken leg and the ship’s cook to the same story line. They’re left with the dilemma which story to believe as does the young novelist.

It does seem odd that the movie is tiled the Life Of Pi but the movie focuses mostly on Pi lost at sea for nine months. I think that was the point that there’s always one moment or one situation in a person’s life that seems to define them more than any other moment in their time. It turns out it was Pi surviving in the Pacific Ocean with Richard Parker in the boat. It seems appropriate that this was his moment especially since he was named after a swimming pool and it the Pacific Ocean–the biggest swimming pool in the world–that he’s able to prove what he’s made of. The movie is also a testament of Pi’s character as well. He wouldn’t put up with being mocked because of his name. He was determined to survive at sea despite losing all his family and despite dealing with a life boat with a wild tiger. And he appears to the local novelist as if he was never scathed. I think the incident did a lot to change Pi and helped him to tough things out and move past tragedy.

The movie may be about one boy’s will to survive but it’s also about Pi’s ability to tell a story. He’s good at telling stories about others and about his own life. It’s his storytelling ability at a young age where he gives the Japanese ship authorities two different stories of the sinking that shows Pi’s biggest gift. That could be the best reason for his survival. I will admit that the story overall does seem like an over-the-top story. A teenage boy surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger for over nine months in the Pacific Ocean, surviving typhoons and whale dives, finding temporary relief on an Atlantis-like island, and Richard Parker disappearing in the Mexican forest never to be seen again. Nevertheless this is what’s best about seeing a movie in a cinema. It makes you a believer of that story for two hours. I really enjoyed seeing that movie. It was escapism at its best.

The acting was quite good. Suraj Sharma did a very good job of acting for an actor so young and especially for a debut. You could bet the hardest part had to be simulating the tiger in the boat. I’m sure that in the scenes the actual tiger was used, the tiger had to be well-trained if he was to work in a movie. Ang Lee did a very good job of directing. I mentioned in my review of Hugo of how many renowned directors have done family movies in the last ten years and Ang is the latest. Directing a family fantasia like this and doing an excellent job of it adds to his versatility as a director. He’s already established himself as a maverick director with movies like Sense And Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and now this.

David Magee did a very good job in adapting the book to screen. The storyline itself is one that can easily appeal to families as some of the most famous family movies have been animal stories. Magee does a good job in creating such a story to charm people of all ages. Claudio Miranda delivers some of the best cinematography of the year. The music of Mychael Danna adds to the film’s magic. The biggest ingredient of the film’s magic has to be the visual effects. The creation of storms, the simulating of the ship sinking, the simulating of animals, the mysterious island, that had to be the biggest and best quality in adding to the magic of the movie. And to have it in 3D is a bonus addition to the magic.

I hate to compare the Life Of Pi to Hugo in terms of which is the bigger family movie masterpiece. Life Of Pi is a masterpiece of its own and makes for a great escape for the whole family. Definitely worth seeing.

VIFF 2012 Review – Nameless Gangster: Rules Of The Time (범죄와의 전쟁)

Nameless Gangster looks like South Korea’s attempt to try and make a gangster movie. The one thing is it does a very good job at making one. This film is more than what one bargained for.

Choi Ik Hyun doesn’t seem like the type to become a gangster. He’s a customs officer in Busan who was pilfering goods and taking bribes along with colleagues at the most. On top of it, he gets drunk very often and comes off as both clumsy and idiotic after a lot of drinking. That all changes when he comes across 10kg of heroin in the warehouse. He and a friend approach a gangster, Choi Hyung-bae, to sell it to Japan’s yakuza that he’s tied to. He also learns that Hyung-bae is from the same family tree.

Soon the two would become partners in crime and they would form their own organized crime syndicate. Soon Choi’s power grows to owning night clubs and one of Busan’s first class hotels. He also faces power struggles from close associates, people within his gang and even among rivals. Some of it has to do with his feisty personality and his habit for getting drunk easily. Other times it’s because of the conflict of who’s really in power. As Choi’s power grows, politics are changing in South Korea. The dictatorship which allowed Choi to prosper in his criminal activity is now making way to democracy with the election of President Roh Tae-woo just before the Seoul Olympics. Just two years after the election, the government proposes a crackdown on organized crime. Choi knows his days are numbered. He knows the connections to prosecutors that helped some of his men get off charges in the past won’t work anymore. The story ends with the predictable as the movie begins with a prosecutor announcing the arrest of Choi in 1990 but it ends on a different and on a note one wouldn’t expect from a gangster movie.

The film’s script is good for that it’s able to mix humor with organized crime the same way Pulp Fiction and Fargo does. However the film is just as smart as it is in its story too. The film’s script is very detailed in how it’s able to take into account the situation in Busan and the rest of South Korea during that time. It takes into good account the situation of crime in Busan in the 80’s during the time South Korea was still under a dictatorship. Yeah, just because South Korea wasn’t under the tight grip the communist North was under as was well-to-do doesn’t mean the people of South Korea were completely free at the time. It also highlights the changes in South Korea as the decade progress from the student protests, to the Seoul Olympics to the election of President Roh Tae-Woo to Roh’s crackdown on organized crime and corruption. This is a part of history few outside South Korea know about. It’s as much of an eye-opener as it is entertaining.

The movie not only shows South Korea’s changing political climate at the time but how it impacted Choi and why he made his choice to organized crime. South Korea was under a dictatorship to the move to democracy to the crackdown on organized crime. While South Korea was still under a dictatorship Choi’s income as a customs officer wasn’t good. Organized crime seemed his way out at the time. He chose it and reaped the lucrative rewards as well as the star status. He also faced threats from outside rivals and rivalry within his own gang. As South Korea made the move to democracy, prosecutors then became the stars of the new Korea and that meant the downfall of Choi. The title Nameless Gangster could be because Choi could be any man in South Korea at that time. The subtitle Rules Of The Time send the message that the movie is as much about the times as it’s about the protagonist.

There were two powerful scenes in the film on that subject. The first was when Choi was having dinner with his children while he knew his arrest would be eventual. He says goodbye to his son as he is about to go to Los Angeles and told him of the importance of learning  the English language. Another was when he was at a religious ceremony for his newborn grandchild. It’s the child of his son who’s now a prosecutor. The scene where his grandson grips Choi’s finger is a powerful one of hope. It’s like Choi’s happy that his son and grandson have the better futures that Choi never had the chance for.

Without a doubt, the character of Choi was the top quality of the movie. It’s surprising how a bumbling, clumsy, easy drunk like Choi could ever manage to rise to the top of the organized crime scene in Busan but somehow he does. The movie wasn’t just about Choi and his bumbling meetings or his criminal activities. It was also about Choi the husband and Choi the father. The scenes with his children and grandchild show a different side of Choi and make his character three-dimensional rather than the typical stock character of comedies. Actor Choi Min-shik did a very good job with the role. Scriptwriter and director Yun Jong-bin did an excellent job in writing a script that was as comical as it was smart and bringing it to the screen well. I will admit I was first confused during the movie wondering what the point was in having a clumsy, oafish man as a major organized crime don but it all made sense in the end.

Nameless Gangster has received a lot of buzz. In South Korea, the film was #1 at the box office for three weeks. The film has received many awards and nominations amongst South Korea’s movie awards. Time magazine even described it as: “the Korean mob film Scorsese would be proud of.”  Interesting that the Busan-born Yun is almost 32 years-old and he has released two other films that have raised eyebrows, especially in the ways they depict male mannerisms. Already Yun looks like he’s on to a very promising career in directing especially with the success of Nameless Gangster.

Nameless Gangster is more than just an entertaining story of a crime boss. It’s also a statement about South Korea’s politics at the time and about the man caught in between. Definitely a film worth seeing.