Photo Caption:  Suraj Sharma plays the teenage Pi who sets himself adrift on the high seas for a spiritual journey with a Bengal tiger as his copanion. Photo credit: Peter Sorel.

In an incandescent fusion of starlit skies and moonlit seas, “Life of Pi” is visually compelling. But the tale of a young man stranded in the ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker requires a huge leap of faith to believe it.

As a child in India, Pi (short for Piscine) embraces religion in an attempt to bond with “God.” In spite of his family being practicing Hindus, he also explores Christianity and Judaism. Although Pi’s compassionate mother encourages his spiritual quest, his stern father forces him to stick to fundamentals.

We first meet Pi as an adult (Irrfan Khan) living in Canada. Hearing about his fantastic story of surviving 227 days marooned at sea, an aspiring writer yearns to learn more. Pi then relives his adventures in a series of colorful flashbacks.

First, there’s the business of his name, thanks to an uncle and a swimming pool in France. With a fondness for aquatics, the uncle also urges Pi to swim, which of course comes in handy for him later.

Photo credit: Peter Sorel.
Photo credit: Peter Sorel.

Pi’s parents own a zoo and the opening scenes feature a parade of exotic creatures in glorious 3D color. One day, Pi attempts to test his faith by befriending their snarling tiger, but his father angrily prevents it. Not long after, the family decides to move to Canada and bring along their animals to sell. Alas, their vessel meets a violent storm on the Pacific and Pi ends up alone with the tiger.

Based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martell, this film version is directed with pitching emotion by Ang Lee. But without CGI and special effects, the story would be ethereal and inconclusive. Is there really a mysterious island inhabited by meerkats where Pi lands for awhile? And was he really accompanied on his voyage by a zebra, hyena, orangutan and tiger? Or, were they merely metaphors for human survivors of the capsized ship?

Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi adrift at sea is charming and convincing. But the requisite leap of faith is stymied by his incredibly healthy appearance, especially for someone supposedly starving and stranded.

Civilizing wild beasts must be the latest fad. Besides Pi taming a tiger, actress and stuntwoman Gemma Nguyen trains dragons in “How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular”. The stage show that mimics the 2010 film of the same name features the Vietnamese American girl as a Viking named Astrid.

Gemma Nguyen stars as Astrid in “How to Train Your Dragon.” Photo credit: Todd Kaplan.
Gemma Nguyen stars as Astrid in “How to Train Your Dragon.” Photo credit: Todd Kaplan.

Born and raised in Northern Virginia, Nguyen says her mother arrived in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Growing up, Nguyen was “a bit of a tomboy” enthralled by the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, she says. And, though her parents signed her up for dance and piano lessons, it was the introductory karate class that her father surprised her with that “super interested” her at age five.

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” remembers Nguyen who ended up immersing herself in the world of martial arts.

Even though she began competing at 10, her parents were apprehensive about her making martial arts a career.

“Asian parents especially want their kids to follow the normal trend of going to school, getting a degree and being successful,” Nguyen explains.

But after winning 100 national and 71 world titles, she felt confident about relocating to Los Angeles for work.

“My career had already started before I moved there,” she says. “I already knew all the aspects of stunt work.”

Today, Nguyen’s father and sister also have black belts.

“I’m such a trendsetter,” she laughs.

As for dragons, Nguyen says, “It’s a great part of our Asian heritage. A lot of Vietnamese folklore comes from Chinese culture, especially in weddings. For a closer relationship, you’ll have a phoenix and dragon together representing male and female, and both powerhouses coming together.”

Praising Dreamworks for its colorblind casting, Nguyen says she was chosen for a co-starring role she hadn’t auditioned for—“a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white girl”.

Astrid (Gemma Nguyen) and Hiccup (Riley Miner) take their first flight on Toothless the dragon. Photo credit: Todd Kaplan.
Astrid (Gemma Nguyen) and Hiccup (Riley Miner) take their first flight on Toothless the dragon. Photo credit: Todd Kaplan.

“A lot of times in the industry, they audition for a specific look,” she elaborates. “But Dreamworks made it a point to cast the best possible person for the role. I never felt more accommodated in my life and proud as an Asian American to have booked this job in spite of what normally happens in this industry.”

Currently on a world tour that’s included Australia, New Zealand and now the U.S. and Canada, Nguyen gushes: “It’s really a dream come true!”

“Life of Pi” opens November 21 at The Uptown Theater as part of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

“How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular,” shows from December 6-8 at the Tacoma Dome. Tickets available at  www.ticketmaster.com.

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