Ang Lee tells Don­ald Clarke about liv­ing the Life of Pi ,

Ang Lee is a rare crea­ture in the world of cin­ema. No mat­ter the genre – pe­riod drama, art­house, big-bud­get block­buster – he brings a far-east­ern sen­si­bil­ity to his work that is with­out com­pare. “I’m Hol­ly­wood in Asia and Asia in Hol­ly­wood,” he tells Tara

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

THERE’S SOME­THING al­chem­i­cal about Ang Lee. The di­rec­tor of Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon – the big­gest gross­ing for­eign­lan­guage ti­tle of all time – has con­verted count­less nom­i­nally art­house ti­tles – Broke­back Moun­tain, Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity – into global box-of­fice gold.

Is he a tent­pole chap with an art­house sen­si­bil­ity or vice versa? The Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor of Hulk and the Chi­nese au­teur be­hind Lust, Cau­tion can’t say for sure. But he sus­pects that tim­ing is just as im­por­tant as the ge­og­ra­phy.

“You have to give credit to art­house as a phe­nom­e­non be­cause start­ing in the late 1980s, that art­house ex­pan­sion made a lot of in­ter­na­tional ti­tles,” says the Os­car win­ner. “I just hap­pened to catch that wave with my sec­ond film, The Wed­ding Ban­quet. So I ended up in a pe­cu­liar place be­cause it was a main­stream film in Tai­wan but not else­where. I’m art­house here and main­stream there. I’m Hol­ly­wood in Asia and Asia in Hol­ly­wood, so I’m some­where be­tween all of it.”

It cer­tainly didn’t hurt that Lee emerged as a global pres­ence just as the dom­i­nant lan­guage and iconog­ra­phy of pop cul­ture shifted east­wards.

“Glob­al­i­sa­tion has changed,” nods the film­maker. “The cul­ture ex­change is not so oneway any more. Es­pe­cially since the rise of Asia and par­tic­u­larly China eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally. The lan­guage of cul­ture and cin­ema has changed.”

To­day Lee is in Lon­don to chat about his lat­est, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in­ter­na­tional ven­ture. Life of Pi is adapted from the French Cana­dian au­thor Yann Martel’s Booker-Prize win­ning novel and ex­plores the odd spir­i­tual life of a ship­wrecked In­dian boy. A fan­tasy ad­ven­ture de­fined by car­niv­o­rous is­lands, lu­mi­nous fly­ing fish and an ado­les­cent stuck on a raft with a Ben­gal tiger, the book was thought to be un­filmable un­til Lee turned it into a $200 mil­lion (¤152m and count­ing) hit.

“When I read it first, I put it aside,” ad­mits Lee. “I in­tro­duced my wife and my son to it. And we talked about it for a cou­ple of weeks. I didn’t think it was im­pos­si­ble. For me, there’s no such thing as an un­filmable novel. It’s not movie-friendly though.

“The sit­u­a­tion was in­ter­est­ing. But in the book it drags on for­ever. It’s an en­durance. I don’t think you can tor­ture your au­di­ence in that way. It would be art­house at best.”

In ad­di­tion to the struc­tural chal­lenges, would-be adapters faced any num­ber of lo­gis­ti­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. PostA­vatar 3D could, Lee re­alised, al­low his digi­tised tiger to come to life. But 20th Cen­tury Fox weren’t so keen at first. This was a pres­tige pic­ture, not a genre piece.

“Four years ago, it sim­ply wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble to make this,” notes Lee, who shot Life of PI with stereo­scopic cam­eras, rather than cyn­i­cally adding 3D ef­fects in post­pro­duc­tion. “It would have been a very dif­fer­ent movie. I fought to do it in 3D be­cause this is not an ac­tion movie. But I just didn’t think the movie would be pos­si­ble oth­er­wise. It was very hard for me to put to­gether ev­i­dence why I should. Be­cause I was try­ing to fig­ure out why my­self. I think Avatar le­git­imised it as a tool for sto­ry­telling in­stead of just an ef­fect and Hugo and this film have taken that fur­ther.”

Life of Pi’s ex­trav­a­gant nar­ra­tive be­gins in sun­drenched French In­dia. It’s tit­u­lar hero – named for a swim­ming pool, then later the math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bol – lives with his par­ents and younger sis­ter in an ex­otic zoo­log­i­cal en­clo­sure. The teenager has em­braced the var­i­ous tenets of Hin­duism, Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity when the fam­ily de­cide to re­lo­cate from Pondicherry to Canada. En route, the freighter car­ry­ing the clan and their many an­i­mals sinks, leav­ing Pi (Su­raj Sharma) to drift on a lifeboat for more than 200 days with only a tiger for com­pany.

In con­trast to cer­tain high-pro­file New Zealand pro­duc­tions, there was never any pos­si­bil­ity that Lee would work with an ac­tual cat. In the end, the di­rec­tor had trou­ble con­vinc­ing in­ter­na­tional an­i­mal wel­fare groups that his very con­vinc­ing and stu­diously non-an­thro­po­mor­phised tiger was com­posed en­tirely from pix­els from the ef­fects house Rhythm & Hues.

“The stu­dio didn’t want that and nei­ther did we,” says the Tai­wanese-Amer­i­can. “It’s too much re­spon­si­bil­ity to travel a tiger and use a tiger. We watched tigers. We needed to learn from them – we have to learn how to an­i­mate them. How their mus­cles move. How they catch light. How hair moves. Ev­ery de­tail. We shoot numer­ous ref­er­ences. Nor­mally an an­i­ma­tion team are not al­lowed to do that. But we were de­ter­mined that would hap­pen.”

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