IT IS a story that surprised many: a boy escapes a sinking ship to share a lifeboat with a tiger.
Now movie director Ang Lee is being taken by surprise by Life of Pi again, with his small film setting box office records in China.
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A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery.
Lee admits he is "very surprised" at the Chinese response to the film. "It's a lot stronger than the States. The most fascinating thing is to hear people talk and write on the internet, particularly from China; they're really intense. I didn't realise the movie really has an Asian vibe."
Oscar-winning director Lee arrived in Australia on Monday to promote Life of Pi, the powerful and visually extraordinary 3D adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel that has received Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture - drama, and best director.
Martel's book, recounting the extraordinary journey of a boy from India to Canada in the company of a menagerie of zoo animals, was long considered "unfilmable" and Lee had to travel to India to decide whether he could make the film. "I was in almost a pilgrimage, an unknown journey," he says. "I was in India trying to fashion the story in my head. I was so passionate. It both made me want to jump and do something, but it also posed something quite unknown, perhaps very long and painful, I could see that coming. I am actually looking for my faith in India. Whether I am taking that or not."
Not that there was any divine inspiration. Lee feels life told him to make Life of Pi. "Nobody spoke to me, the movie god didn't tell me 'go ahead' or something. You have to allow yourself to go through a journey. [It takes] probably more than one hint."
He describes meeting his lead actor, the previously unknown Suraj Sharma, as one hint. Seeing the first test of 3D as another. The use of 3D in such a dramatic tale was almost unprecedented, and Lee feels the "naive thought" to approach an already complex task with the new technology ultimately pushed him to deliver every aspect of the story.
"I think just getting to the 3D - the unknowns of the journey, the stretch of my imagination, having doubts, examining the essence of the media … that thinking process really helped me make the movie."
Lee is known not only for the extraordinary variety of the films he has directed, including Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also for subsuming himself in each movie. Yet he acknowledges that even by his all-consuming standards, Life of Pi was an obsession.
For many, the film and book are an examination of religion - "I was just in Mexico City a few days back. They say 'Latin America, we're going to embrace it. We're a Catholic country,' '' - but Lee is quick to clarify that while he believes it is about faith, he thinks it is specifically about storytelling.
"Religion is the McGuffin [a plot device]. In the name of faith, it's really about examining the power of storytelling. Imagination. [The] rational only goes so far. There's a limit. Beyond that limitation, how do you take the leap of faith of embracing the unknown? One way we deal with that is telling stories. It seems to me it's about authorship."
Having taken his pilgrimage, beaten his obsession and completed this film, Lee is still learning about Life of Pi. "I still have more thinking to do," he says.
Life of Pi opens nationally on January 1.