Cameramen dress in panda suits to film panda bears in the wild on October 30, 2014 (FILE)
It is a story of three families of wild animals—the panda, golden snub-nosed monkey and snow leopard. Like the animals, the film that narrates the story, Born in China, is also unusual. No animation is involved. Instead, the "roles" are "played" by the animals themselves.
The film, the first of its kind in China, was shot in three parts in five locations across China, with each part taking about 18 months. The footage was then woven together to make a complete story where the animals show different emotions like humans and a plot emerges.
Born in China is the eighth production of Disneynature, an independent film unit of Walt Disney Studios, and the first to focus on a single country. It was released in China on August 12 and had grossed more than 60 million yuan ($9 million) in the following three weeks.
Initially, it sounded like a crazy idea to Lu Chuan, the director. "When Disney approached me with the idea of making a movie with wild animals as the characters, I was stunned," Lu said. "But I decided to give it a try."
Lu had intended to include more species, but it was near-impossible to get footage of animals like the Siberian tiger and the Yangtze River dolphin.
"There are quite a few endangered species in China that look great on camera," Lu said. "It is a pity that we couldn't include them all. Also, we were looking for natural imagery. We were not trying to get the animals to act."
It was a tough act getting even the three animal families. One production unit had to wait nearly three months for the rare snow leopard, triggering frantic conversations like "Do we abandon this? Do we stop looking for snow leopards because they are the most difficult thing in the world to film?" At one point, that storyline was almost abandoned.
"I'm happy that we kept going," Lu said. And the effort was rewarded by the snow leopards making an appearance, finally.
Besides Disneynature producer Roy Conli, the film brings together professionals from China and the UK. The British team consisted of professional wildlife photographers, while the Chinese team liaised with the local nature reserve authorities and saw to the safe delivery of all filming equipment.
"A good story translates from culture to culture, from country to country," said Conli, who produced Tangled, a 2010 animated fantasy comedy, and Big Hero 6, another animation drama that won an Academy Award in 2015. "Some themes are universal, and their (the animals') behavior inspires us."
"These are animals that could be filmed only in China," said Phil Chapman, the cinematographer. "We needed a much more intimate connection with lots of detail in order to build the story."
The filming process was hard. For example, on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at altitudes of 4,000-5,000 meters, snow leopards' habitat, it was hard to predict what the weather would be like. When the crew sought sunshine and rainbows, they got sudden blizzards instead. Often the light conditions in the wild were also not right for filming.
"Born in China shows the director's deep affection for wildlife," said Chinese actress Zhou Xun, who lent her voice to the movie. "It's about animals, but it's also about family and love. The film will enable people to easily find an emotional resonance."
The family of golden snub-nose monkey Taotao in the film Born in China (FILE)
Life as a circle
Born in China follows the daily lives of a panda and her daughter in Wolong National Nature Reserve in southwest China's Sichuan Province, a group of golden snub-nosed monkeys in the Shennongjia National Nature Reserve in Hubei Province, and a snow leopard family in Yushu County of northwest China's Qinghai Province. It is more a real-life adventure film than a documentary. The vivid narration and voice-overs add to the energy.
Lu, a wildlife fan, views it in a profound way, combining Chinese philosophy and the Buddhist reincarnation concept. The film starts with a group of flying red-crowned cranes. "In Chinese legends, each life, after passing away, will be carried by the cranes to heaven," goes the narration. Taotao, a golden monkey, is not happy, as his parents pay more attention to his new-born sister. Every time he tries to get close to them for food or care, he is ignored. So he becomes rebellious and leaves his family to hang out with "bad monkeys." Every day they just play and eat, with an older monkey as the gang leader. It seems an ideal life to Taotao, but there is a snag: the eagle, which swoops down all of a sudden and snatches baby monkeys away.
Dava, a snow leopard with two cubs, is a superfast runner who knows every inch of her territory. She immediately knows when a weaker species, such as an antelope, that she can easily grab as food comes into her territory, and she scares away other leopards that want to share the food or territory.
However, Dava's life changes when four stronger snow leopards invade her territory and she is forced to move away with her cubs. Winter is a harsh time, with food becoming scarce, and Dava needs to familiarize herself with her new home as well as stay alert for attacks by other stronger animals.
Winter is not pleasant for Taotao either. The pals he has been hanging out with start to fight among themselves over the limited food, showing their greedy and selfish side. It drives Taotao back to his family, to huddle together with his relatives for survival. But Taotao's father still remains distant until one day, when Taotao fights valiantly to save his kid sister from an attacking eagle.
Compared to those of the other creatures, a panda's life is much more peaceful. Panda mom Yaya has nothing more serious to worry about than her daughter Meimei growing up. She knows Meimei will become an adult some day, and she wants to slow down the process by keeping Meimei by her side all the time.
But Meimei is naughty. She loves to shin up trees, a sign that she is growing up and becoming independent, even though she always falls down.
"We have a lot in common with animals even though they don't speak our language," Lu said. "Parenting issues, growing-up pangs, the sweet and warm moments."
There are brutal scenes as well. Dava hurts herself while chasing a group of antelopes and cannot get any food all of winter. Then a herd of yaks comes along and she grasps her last chance to survive. She pounces on a calf, but an adult yak comes to its rescue and starts goring Dava with its huge horns. Dava is soon covered in blood, but doesn't let go of her prey until she is killed.
"We showed only the first few moments of the yak's attack. It soon got too brutal to watch," Lu said. "It was their struggle for survival, harsh and bloody."
Lu hopes the wildlife drama will arouse public concern for wildlife protection, particularly wild pandas and snow leopards in China, as well as for the environment in which they live.
His earlier film, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004), depicting the conflict between rangers and poachers in Hoh Xil, a nature preserve in Qinghai, ranks among the best Chinese films about environmental protection. Born in China also features antelopes from Hoh Xil.
"It's rare to find films focusing on Chinese animals," said Zhang Wei, President of Shanghai Oriental Pearl Media, a state-owned media and entertainment company. "It will make people respect nature and life." Born in China will be translated into 16 languages for global audiences and will be released in North American theaters on April 22, 2017, the Earth Day.
"It can be difficult to compete with Captain America (the series of U.S. superhero films based on the eponymous Marvel Comics character) for a short while, but I am sure it can do so in the long term. Few people will be talking about Captain America by then, but this film will still be remembered. I am confident of that," Lu said.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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