Born in China

Mei Mei reacts to the results of the 2016 American presidential election.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Disneynature) John Krasinski (narrator). Directed by Chuan Lu


China is the most populous nation on Earth but it is also one of the most sparsely populated – the vast majority of Chinese people live in big cities. There are rural villages but much of the country, particularly the high plateaus, is pristine wilderness populated by vast numbers of critters some of which are unfamiliar to even those with more than a passing interest in zoology.

As is their wont, Disney nature photographers follow several groups of animals – in this case the insanely cute pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, red-crowned cranes, the notoriously hard-to-find snow leopard and the chiru which is the Chinese name for the Tibetan antelope. The People’s Republic footed a fairly decent percentage of the bill so any reference to the troublesome Tibet province has been excised from the film. Even the habitat of the snow leopard In the Tibetan plateau is referred to as the Qinghai plateau.

The stories of these animals are anthropomorphized and narrated by John Krasinski who isn’t a particularly charismatic reader. It doesn’t help that much of the narration is fairly cheesy and while ostensibly educational, has clunky dialogue where he exclaims that Ya Ya the mama panda has to feed on forty pounds of bamboo a day then re-emphasizing “40 pounds. A. Day!” Ain’t nature amazing!

The photography is as we’ve come to expect from Disneynature breathtaking to say the least; that the locations that they are shooting in have largely gone undocumented by camera makes it additionally of interest to both travel buffs and cinema buffs alike. There are plenty of slow motion shots of monkeys leaping from tree to tree or cranes taking off or flying low on the water. In a lot of ways the filmmakers, mostly Chinese, follow the Disneynature playbook to the letter – like many nature documentaries, this one is organized by the seasons of the year.

But they do break with tradition – one of the main “characters” in the film doesn’t survive the brutal winter and the body of the unfortunate creature, partially buried in the snow, is displayed which might upset some of the more sensitive kids in the audience. It’s all a part of the Circle of Life that Disney has essentially copyrighted since The Lion King as if it were a concept that the House that Walt Built came up with. The law of the jungle predates even the venerable Disney Corporation – survival of the fittest is not a new concept after all.

Disney likes to give parents and children a kind of moral theme and very often it revolves around the nature of family – here very much it is about the importance of parents and how very dangerous it can be not to listen to them. That’s going to go over well with more traditional parenting sorts although some of the more progressive parents may well encourage their kids to question everything – including themselves.

The sequences here are moving, sometime profoundly so, and both the locations and animals rarely seen on film so this is a must-see for nature lovers and travel buffs alike. Those who aren’t particularly interested in the great outdoors will still find some value in the Disney messaging here, particularly if they have young kids. While those who don’t fall into either category may well find this less compelling, there is still enough here to make it worthwhile viewing even if you don’t have kids or care about animals.

REASONS TO GO: As always, Disney excels at showing the cute side of nature. The film is unusually moving for a nature documentary. There is some gorgeous cinematography of fairly remote areas of China.
REASONS TO STAY: The narration is a bit hokey.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes that might end up being disturbing to the littlest members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the ninth film to be released on Earth Day by Disneynature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
strong>FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Battle of Memories


The Way Back

The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.


TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Even Olympic sprinters would have difficulty running at this altitude.

(Goldwyn) Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Zhao Xueying, Ma Zhanlin. Directed by Lu Chuan

In the Tibetan highlands of the Kekexili pass, life is brutal and merciless. The altitude makes physical activity demanding, and the cold, thin air makes vegetation sparse and unappealing. There is little of value there – but some things more precious than gold.

The Kekexili pass is the last remaining habitat of the Tibetan antelope. Once numbering in the millions, the animal had been hunted by poachers to near-extinction, with less than 10,000 remaining of the breed by the mid-90s. Appalled at the unabated slaughter of the animal, a group of Tibetan men took it upon themselves to protect them against the poachers.

They have no government support and almost no supplies. They have little authority which mainly consists of confiscating illegally poached antelope pelts. They are poorly armed and in harms way, demonstrated as the movie opens with the brutal execution of one of the Patrol’s members.

Chinese journalist Ga Yu (Lei) arrives in the village where the patrol is based just in time to make the funeral of the executed patrol member. These funerals are referred to as Sky Burials by the locals. Afterwards, Ga is taken to the leader of the patrol, Ritai (Bujie). Formerly a member of the military, he has taken leave from his unit to lead the patrol. Taciturn, brooding but with a deep abiding love for the land and its creatures, he proposes to lead a patrol to find the poacher who executed his man. This poacher has grown progressively bolder and with him murdering a member of the patrol, the time has come to take action against him.

The patrol goes out, with Ga in tow and Ritai’s right hand man Liu Dong (Liang). They capture a family of poachers who have ties to the one who murdered the patrol member and manage to extract the location of the bandit in question. However, the journey is a long and difficult one, and it becomes clear that they will be unable to continue the mission with the entire team and the captured poachers. They release their prisoners and Liu is sent back to the village with the injured and sick. Once Liu gets to the medical clinic, however, it becomes clear that they can’t afford the fees for treatment. Ritai instructs him to sell some of the pelts. Ga is aghast at this but Ritai tells him, matter-of-factly that the government had not sent any financial support in over a year.

One of their trucks breaks down, so Ritai and Ga head after the poachers alone, leaving the men to wait for Liu Dong, knowing that if he cannot find them they will die very quickly in the unforgiving environment of the Kekexili. And what of Ritai? Outnumbered and outgunned, how can he hope to take down the poacher who he has chased into the very roof of the world?

This movie takes place in a bleak and harsh landscape and in many ways the storyline reflects this. Director Chuan’s cast is mainly amateurs, with the exception of Lei and Bujie. They do exceptionally good jobs in conveying the kind of men who live such a difficult existence, but carry with them a great passion for the land and the things that live in it. The name “Kekexili” in their language means “beautiful mountains” and also “beautiful maidens.” For them, the highlands are both.

Bujie makes a fine heroic figure, a man fully aware of how tough his men need to be to survive, but at the same time fiercely protective of them. Handsome in a rugged way, this is the kind of role that Jack Palance or Robert De Niro would have taken on had they been younger or Tibetan (preferably both).

The real star here is the Kekexili itself. Cinematographer Cao Yu is one of the best in the world at what he does, and he makes wonderful use of the beautifully bleak vistas. So alien is the landscape that it almost seems another planet. Still, in the harshness there is great beauty and poetry, and it is captured nicely.

So too is the life of those who live in the Kekexili, a life filled with little promise but still lived with great joy. The Tibetan villagers are a rugged lot – they have to be to survive in an unforgiving place as the Kekexili, where one misstep, one mistake can mean death.

The movie is based on actual events – the mountain patrol really existed in the mid-90s, although this is a fictionalized account of their deeds. The movie has gone on to great acclaim in Asia, and has brought about changes in how the Chinese government deals with poachers. There is now a military patrol that actively prosecutes poaching in the Kekexili highlands and the size of the antelope herd has more than tripled since the movie was set.

This is a look at a culture as alien as the one displayed in Avatar, yet it is here in our world. The movie is unrelentingly grim in many ways, and it doesn’t end well for all those who are portrayed in it. Still, it is a fascinating movie, beautifully photographed and well worth a look, even if you’re not fond of subtitles (the movie’s dialogue is almost entirely in Mandarin and Tibetan). We seldom get to see what is going on in our own attic, but this movie gives us a glimpse at a place and a culture we rarely are able to see. That’s all the incentive I need to see a movie like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning landscapes of harsh barrenness are breathtaking. A rare look into a part of the world rarely seen onscreen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The bleakness of the scenery carries over into the movie, which may be a bit too disturbing and grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality and several disturbing scenes, particularly the shooting of an antelope and the death by quicksand of one of the patrol.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which the antelope is shot utilizes a Mongolian Gazelle as actual Tibetan antelope are protected by international and Chinese law. The crew affixed the antlers of an antelope and filmed the shooting with two cameras. Some of the crew were very upset by this and the animal was given a funeral and buried.