Meerkats and maggots - Chinese netizens dissect Life of Pi

The Chinese audience are seized by the darker aspects of the movie Life of Pi, seeing in it a grim tale of cannibalism and matricide. -- PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Warning: Do not read this if you have not seen but intend to see Ang Lee's Life of Pi. Don't continue too if you don't have the stomach for life's brutalities.

Into its third week in Chinese cinemas, the fabulous story of an Indian teen and a tiger who find themselves in the same boat is sitting snugly at the top of China's box office charts, reeling in renminbi and praise all at once.

But it has also given many Chinese the shivers, especially as most seem more inclined to believe what lies underneath the surface story. "This is truly a horror story. I couldn't sleep the night after I watched Life of Pi," said movie-goer Fan Xiaoyao on her microblog.

I would first have to explain the back story.

Adapted from a 2001 novel of the same name by Canadian writer Yann Martel, the movie is about the incredible survival of Pi, an Indian teenager who boards a ship with his parents, older brother, as well as animals from their zoo in India, to head for a new life in Canada. But the ship runs into a storm and sinks.

Pi escapes when he jumps off the ship into a wooden boat, but ends up with the unlikeliest of companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a tiger.

The movie tells the story, in gorgeous 3D images, of how Pi survives 227 days adrift in a boat. Most of the animals don't make it - the hyena kills the zebra and the orang-utan before it gets killed by the tiger.

Pi has to make sure he doesn't end up in the tiger's tummy - and he succeeds, with help from the powers above.  The movie has been the talk of town in Beijing, as many of the city's literary youths and grizzled political watchers can't resist sinking their teeth into a movie rich with symbolism.

As one netizen argues, the Life of Pi is no straight story - but a round one, as Pi refers to the value of 3.14 used to measure a circle.

Interestingly, in officially atheist China, most netizens seem to distrust the miraculous and uplifting narrative, finding its darker alternative more believable. This grim version, told at the movie's end, has it that Pi's mates in the boat were animals only metaphorically. Instead, the hyena was a cook; the zebra was a sailor; the orang-utan is Pi's mother; and the tiger is Pi.

So the cook butchered the sailor and later killed Pi's mother. Driven out of his senses, Pi in turn plunges a knife into the cook. All well and good, this is what is written in the novel too.

Chinese netizens who go for this narrative have dug up "proof" from faraway shores. They point to a real-life Briton named Richard Parker - the name of the tiger in the movie - who was ship-wrecked and eaten up by companions in the 1800s. Some also note that the tiger was originally named "Thirsty", and there's a scene in which a priest told Pi, "You must be thirsty."

Well, by now, you might have cottoned on to the grisly implications - if the animals are actually humans, did Pi survive in the high seas by tucking into his fellow humans?

Some Chinese bloggers have gone one step further and teased out the gruesome logic. They posit that to survive, Pi even ate the flesh of his mother. To support this reading, they point to a strange floating isle populated with meerkats that Pi washes up on later. They claim the island stands for his mother's corpse. The meerkats, they say, are in truth maggots sprouting out from the remains.

In this tale, indeed, Pi's animal or tiger self takes over when he is pushed to the end of his tether. Some quote British war poet Siegfried Sassoon to suggest that there's a beast in all of us. "In me the tiger sniffs the rose," they cite from his poem, In Me, Past Present Future Meet.

It is not surprising that the Chinese seized on the cannibalistic version; metaphors about humans devouring each other are common in modern Chinese literature. A classic example is the short story by celebrated writer Lu Xun about the Chinese eating buns containing human flesh, a vivid symbol of how far his compatriots would go to pursue their own interests.

Another reason why many Chinese don't find cannibalistic tales too hard to swallow could be the country's all too painful experience with starvation. In cinemas this week too is 1942, a Feng Xiaogang movie about the famine that struck China during the Kuomintang years. Of course, what comes to mind too is the Great Famine of the late 1950s, which reportedly led to 30 million deaths in China, but this remains taboo under the communists.

All rather depressing.

The movie's distributors may be happy though: some people are going back for repeat viewings to dissect the movie once more. For me, though, a second serving is not necessary - I have already decided which story I'd rather, not, believe.