For her debut feature, which took two years to shoot in challenging weather conditions in Moerdaoga National Forest of Inner Mongolia, Cao Jinling crafts an ecocentric work that straddles the fairy tale and fable to chart the irrevocable impact of modernization on the forest in which an indigenous family lives and through which they construct their identities both individual and collective. The importance and strength of place is such that the film’s original Chinese title is Moerdaoga, where Cao was born and grew up; most significantly, Cao witnessed the relentless logging to which the area became subject from the 1980s to the 1990s that accompanied China’s modernisation and reached Inner Mongolia (finally curbed by 1998’s Natural Forest Protection Project). Cao channels her memories of pre- and post-lapsarian Moerdaoga, of her childhood surrounded by trees and her witnessing of the unchecked deforestation, through a tale of two brothers whose paths diverge in response to development and money-making opportunities, however distant from and in the shadow of rapid changes of China proper. With the inimitable cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing staunchly by her side, Anima is as breathtaking in imagery as it is assured in direction and frank in its theme without being too saccharine or moralizing about ecological protection.
Between Cao’s personal memories of place and having the daughter of the last remaining Ewenki matriarch as the film’s consultant, what strikes the spectator is the unmitigated respect for Moerdaoga that reigns throughout the film, to the point of imbuing the largely undiscovered forest according to the narrative’s time period of the 1980s with emotional qualities. Within this forest of ancient trees (birch, larch) lives an Ewenki family of three. This family of three, however, quickly becomes four when it finds a crying infant on the side of a road and adopts it as one of its own. The parents name the infant Linzi (“forest”) and becomes the older brother to their equally infant son Tutu. As children, an encounter with a bear ends up defining their familial bond as well as shaping their respective personalities and trajectories as adults. When the family is hunting and Linzi falls into a hole with a young bear, his mother discovers what has happened and throws herself into the hole to protect him. Ironically enough, in protecting Linzi, she is killed along with the bear by Tutu. Following Ewenki custom, if a bear is killed, a ritual must be performed in order to help ward off the curse that comes with the killing.
As adults, the mother’s death remains an unspoken linking and de-linking of the brothers’ relationship, and the curse an invisible force hovering over Tutu (Si Ligeng) in particular and the family in general. This curse is in part embodied by the elements and Moerdaoga forest, according to the way in which each brother dis/places value on it, and the motif of the bear. One could even find in Tutu’s impulsive, aggressive, garrulous, and arrogant bearing and attitude towards people and nature a misguided attempt to placate his anxiety about the curse, which bleeds intensely into his feelings about the forest. In direct contrast to him is Linzi (Wang Chuanjun): taciturn and more often than not wearing a blank expression that in fact points to an introspective character that occasionally manifests itself through actions that are clear and full, almost too full, of emotion, particularly towards the forest. The brothers’ difference in character is unwittingly displayed when Tutu drags Linzi to meet a gang boss about illegal logging in or around the forest in which their family lives. While Tutu happily drinks to confirm his agreement, Linzi quickly rejects the plan and storms out.
Another, more explicit catalyst to drawing out the brothers’ divergence that turns into rivalry is the arrival of the hunter Chun (Qi Xi) as the cook for the lumberjacks, recruited by Linzi. Each man’s manner of interacting with Chun simply reinforces their difference, though Cao is careful to not let this love triangle overpower the film. Unbeknownst to Tutu, Chun and Linzi meet in the forest before her arrival as the cook. In retrospect, the extended sequence of snow and cold wherein Linzi is caught in one of Chun’s bear traps, injured, released, and then heaped on a sled that is pulled by Chun to the logging outfit’s home base is a nearly wordless courtship that does more to elaborate their respective characters than dialogue.
On this note, notable is the use of the actors’ bodies: Si, Wang, and Qi in particular give extremely physical performances, especially in the winter sequences, sometimes in place of dialogue. In this way, Cao presents a kind of parity between the actors and the environment, neither one one-upping the other in terms of emotional and narrative focal points.
That said, integral to the narrative apart from the above-mentioned plot points is seeing, really seeing, the environment and its effect on one’s subjectivity and the personification of the forest and its trees, their quiet, their dignity of height and age, and the gradual wounds that they become once logging gets underway. In this regard, the most profound relationship and actual driving force of the film is not between the brothers or Linzi and Chun but that between Linzi and his namesake. From the time that he is found in a basket hanging from a tree to frantically trying to stop the cutting of the trees by even official loggers decades later, the bond between Linzi and the forest is constant, even to the detriment of human relationships. A great example of the power of this bond is the spellbinding sequence that involves the killing of the “mother tree” and Linzi’s witnessing of and even surviving the “tree breath spell,” following Ewenki beliefs. Linzi’s state of mind even comes to parallel what happens to the forest across time, the suggestion of which is one of the film’s strengths.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.