The Life of Pi
By Rick Charette
If you have not seen Taiwan director Ang Lee’s most recent Oscar-winning work of cinematic art, you must. If you have not ever seen the beautiful Pacific island of Taiwan, once you’ve watched The Life of Pi, you will have.
The Life of Pi received four Oscars at the most recent Academy Awards, for best director, cinematography, original score, and visual effects. The film’s director, Ang Lee, is one of Taiwan’s most celebrated citizens, a winner of Oscar acclaim on multiple occasions who today enjoys Hollywood cachet powerful enough that he can freely choose which of his dreams he wishes to bring to cinematic life.
This time he chose The Life of Pi, and though he now resides in the United States he chose his native Taiwan to do much of the filming. In his Oscar acceptance speech he stated that he could not possibly have made the film anywhere other than his homeland – “without the help of Taiwan.” The reasons are many, most notably the locations that perfectly matched this fantastical story, the special film-industry facilities that enabled the making of a film that breaks new ground in special-effects reality and artistic beauty, and last but not least, the special character of the Taiwan people, both professionals and public, who went above and beyond what a director might find anywhere else in helping make his vision reality.
Taiwan is never mentioned during the movie, but you see it and are “in” it for much of the time. The long opening sequence lovingly details the “Indian” zoo the main character, Pi, grows up in. This is the Taipei Zoo, one of Asia’s largest. Among the many animal stars you’ll see the rare, endemic Formosan black bear rearing up – look for the bright-white “V” across its chest and shoulders – and white-spotted Formosan sika deer hurtling left to right across the screen. The movie is heavily animal-centric, and most of the non-computer-generated stars are from the Taipei Zoo, enticed by food into the desired positions when their bit parts were filmed. The zoo has posted signage for visitors to show where various shots were filmed.
Pi spends much of his time out on the ocean, first on a freighter and then on a lifeboat. These sequences – most notably the powerful storms and the freighter’s sinking – were filmed in the central city of Taichung at decommissioned Shuinan Airport. This is the site of a wave-generating pool that will be opened to the public as part of a film studio down the road. The pool, equipped with pneumatic wave generators sourced from the USA, is the world’s largest, 75 meters long, 30 wide, and three deep. It is able to create thousands of different wave effects, including waves 12 meters high, using pressure precision-controlled with 12 floodgates. The Taichung city government plans to open a movie park here by 2015, which will feature sound stages, backlots, and an editing complex.
Before his rescue, Pi comes across a magical floating island of banyan trees, their exposed roots everywhere. The incredible environment was not computer-generated; it actually exists, though not on a small floating island. The scenes were filmed on Taiwan’s pristine southeast coast, in Pingtung County, in the White Banyan Park. Managed by the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (TFRI), the park is currently off-limits to tourists, because the white banyan tree is susceptible to airborne brown root rot, which may be inadvertently introduced should a constant stream of visitors be allowed. Note that there is a collection of the trees nearby at the Hengchun Tropical Botanical Garden in Kenting National Park, on Taiwan’s southern tip. The trees are over a century old; the garden was originally opened in 1906 as a research station by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945.
Pi finally drifts ashore on a beautiful deserted white-sand beach in tropical Mexico. You can visit the bay – in Kenting National Park. Baishawan/White Sand Bay, 500 meters long, is on the park’s west side. Framed by coral reef, the sand is made of fine shell fragments. The tranquil bay, comparatively secluded, offers fine swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving, and there are water-activity gear-rental outlets nearby. It was declared “Best Kept Secret” in Beach Tomato.com’s 2011 Travel Awards, the editors proclaiming that “this oriental sandy treasure has been kept hushed behind monumental evergreens…. This is a tropical beach paradise ….”
When you finish watching the film, as you watch the credits roll by you’ll see that a great many of the individuals named are from Taiwan, their names transliterated. There are also numerous Taiwan film-industry companies and government organizations named. As Ang Lee has said, this film was in the truest sense a communal effort by the people of Taiwan.
As Ang Lee has said, this film was in the truest sense a communal effort by the people of Taiwan
And you won’t be surprised to read that a good number from among the crew of 160 from 24 other countries that Ang brought decided to extend their Taiwan stays after wrapping up filming here, after getting a taste of life in the Kenting National Park area.
English and Chinese
Hengchun Tropical Botanical Garden 恆春熱帶植物園
Kenting National Park 墾丁國家公園
Shuinan Airport 水湳機場
Taipei Zoo 臺北市動物園
White Banyan Park白榕園