Life of Pi (2012): The Affective Experience of the Sublime


My essay investigates the affective experience of the sublime in Ang Lee's Life of Pi (2012). As one of Lee’s most successful films both in the West and China, Life of Pi has garnered commercial success, critical acclaim and public appeal. Comments on Douban and Rotten Tomatoes highlight its visual spectacular and narrative complexity, which manifest that the audiences are engaged through both the artifact emotions and the narrative emotions. This essay discusses how the film is designed to elicit the affective experience of the sublime through its spectacular visual effects and its multi-layered storylines, prompting moral and philosophical reflection outside the regular experience and elevating the affective experience from hedonic gratification (pleasure-seeking) to eudemonic (meaning-seeking) gratification. 

Life of Pi is not only a film about grief, loss, and trauma; or, to put it in terms of paradigm scenarios (De Sousa 1987), a film about separation, survival struggle and religious transgression, but also a film that reflects upon the significance of spirituality, perseverance, faith and hope as well as the existential choice of cruel reality or fabricated illusion. It is an emotionally intense journey that can be related to our own mortality, to the radiance and cruelty of nature, and the infinitude of being. By imposing the question “which story do you prefer”, the film invites the viewer to have their own choices of bestiality and divinity. The viewer is also imposed to consider Pi’s cannibalism in the drifting journey, to make moral judgement of his extreme behaviour, and to forgive him or not on this account. The film refuses to provide just an unrealistic fantasy solution (Plantinga, Moving Viewers, 169-97) or infect the view with noxious ideologies. Instead, it gently asks the viewer to choose their own preference while inviting them to side with the divine story. 

While the film certainly astounds the viewer with its spectacular visual effects, the success of the film might be more attributed to Lee's ability of eliciting emotional engagement with the protagonist, and provoking cognitive understanding and ethical reflection through Lee’s unique aesthetic devices and narrative strategies.