Movie Magic: Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s Latest Outing (Updated with the Economist Review)

21 Dec

The special effects company that relocated to Taiwan to work on the ‘Life of Pi,’ Ang Lee’s latest outing, should provide a much-needed boost to Taiwan’s film industry

Ang Lee’s (李安) Life of Pi hit Taiwan theaters Nov. 21. Adapted from Yann Martel’s international bestseller of the same name, the movie is an adventure tale of a boy who miraculously survives months at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger.

Lee, whose repertoire of films includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution (色,戒) and Taking Woodstock, returned to Taiwan on Nov. 9 to commemorate the building of the VFX Center, a new high-end filmmaking studio, in Kaohsiung’s Pier 2 district that did much of the film’s eye-catching visuals.


Life of Pi gives life

Prashant Buyyala, managing director of Rhythm & Hues (R&H), the company operating the center which also has facilities in India, Malaysia, Canada and the US, said that Lee’s vision and the movie were the primary reasons why they set it up in Taiwan.

R&H will train new talent and provide opportunities for the next generation of Taiwanese artists to work on major Hollywood films without having to leave home.” This translates to future creation of 200 jobs for digital artists in Taiwan, he added.

Life of Pi took four years to produce, with 70 percent of it filmed in Taiwan, and involved construction in a former Taichung airport of a 1.7-million-gallon water tank complete with wave machine to simulate being lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“I wondered why we didn’t have such a company in Taiwan. If Malaysia and India can do this, why not Taiwan? So I helped (R&H) set one up,” said the Oscar-winning Lee.

In a forum with Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), the film’s now 18-year-old lead star Suraj Sharma and R&H executives, Ang said he chose the special effects company because of its track record.

“They’re the best at visual effects,” he said, adding, “I only work with the best companies.”

Setting up the film studio in Taiwan, he said, “is also good stimulus to drive us to be [more] innovative. It’s an issue that needs examination and reflection. The filmmaking industry needs a comprehensive supply chain. That is what is lacking in Taiwan. We need to elevate the infrastructure in Taiwan and equip young people with knowledge,” Lee said.

Initially, Lee had to convince 20th Century Fox executives to support his vision for the film. Fox eventually sign off on the massive US$120 million production costs — a large portion spent on its special effects, using not only the best in CGI (computer generated imagery) but also 3D technology.

Prashant Buyyala, R&H’s managing director, said that a Taiwan production center was “economically viable,” and “perfect, for now.” In the past, R&H considered opening studios in Europe and China.


Though I’m not sure if I’ll see the movie in cinema, I’m definitely all happy about Director An Lee’s global success & contribution to Taiwan’s movie industry~ 🙂



Storytelling in a new dimension

Ang Lee’s new film is a triumph. Here he offers a dazzling display of technical prowess, marrying breathtaking feline effects and sumptuous visuals with an intrinsic yet somehow invisible application of 3D. Also, Mr Lee has understood that Mr Martel’s achievement was not just to make the audience believe in Richard Parker but to believe the relationship that develops between Richard Parker and Pi.

Although the earlier scenes of Pi and his family in Pondicherry are inevitably less exciting, they do establish the story’s essential questions about God and belief. There’s humanity and humour too that keeps the film grounded even at its maddest moments.

Hollywood has searched high and low for the next “Avatar”—James Cameron’s pioneering 3D epic that was released in 2009. But from crude eleventh-hour conversions such as “Clash of the Titans” to the stomach-churning excess of “Alice in Wonderland” and technically brilliant but lifeless efforts such as Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, no one since Mr Cameron has made a film that was just simply better in 3D. Until now.

“Life of Pi” feels like an art-house film that has made clever use of a multimillion-dollar budget. The 3D is so subtle that it is sometimes hard to spot, until you realise that you jumped that bit higher when the tiger leapt from under the boat’s canopy and cowered that bit more when Pi is hurled into waves that seem to crash right through the screen. It is a visceral epic in which special effects always serve a purpose. The colour-saturated cinematography and pink Pacific dawns where the sky melts into the sea lend a surreal look that complements the over-arching question about the limits of our belief.

Another specific reason why 3D works so well here is because the extra dimension, like this story, is about distance and the narrowing of it. The technology reinforces the physical push and pull between man and beast on the boat and the metaphysical one between man and God. But beyond the 3D technology and special effects, “Life of Pi” is, pure and simply, good storytelling. Too good to be true? As Pi says, “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for?”


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