Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Disney Nature’s Born in China

Let’s be honest, pandas are adorable. Their custodial guardians are a different matter. From an environmental perspective, the People’s Republic is one of the worst serial polluters in the world. However, any concern for Chinese environmental policy is conspicuously absent from Disney Nature’s new Chinese co-production. That may indeed be problematic, but those pandas are still just as cute in Lu Chuan’s Born in China (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lu, an established Chinese auteur who often works with large canvasses (notably City of Life and Death, Last Supper, and Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe), crisscrossed China from the rocky edge of the Tibetan Steppe to the Eden-like Woolong Nature Reserve, filming symbolically Chinese animals in their natural habitats. We follow a mother snow leopard trying to provide for her young, watch a mischievous golden snub-nose monkey on the verge of growing up, and chill out with a contented panda lazing about with her cub. In between, we get some interludes of iconic Chinese cranes. Parents should be warned up front, Born in China does not end well for one of its focal characters (hint: it’s not the pandas).

Indeed, there is so much anthropomorphism going on, Lu refuses to call it a documentary, but a narrative film instead. His directness is refreshing, but Lu and his crew were still stuck with the endings nature provided. In one case, they try to spin some pretty dire consequences into an affirming manifestation of the Buddhist cycle of life. That kind of works for us, but you’ll have to judge for yourself whether that will work for your seven-year-old.

The usual environmental message of most Disney Nature films is also conspicuously missing. Frankly, Born in China does not even bother to ask us to pick up our litter. You would have no idea Mainland China has any environmental issues whatsoever from watching this film. Rather tellingly, the English-language release was narrated by John Krasinski, who wrote and co-starred in the anti-fracking drama Promised Land, partly-financed by a subsidiary of the government of OPEC member state, the United Arab Emirates. So, apparently, his environmental convictions are for sale to the highest bidder.

Frankly, we would probably all be happier if Disney had just subtitled the Chinese narration of Zhou Xun, because she’s a real movie star. In addition, Lu demonstrates his keen eye for spectacle and grandeur. He and his battery of cinematographers, including aerial specialist Irmin Kerck, capture some stunning shots. They also manage to zoom in so up-close-and-personal, it makes it rather easy to ascribe human emotions to their furry cast-members. They even include the nature documentary equivalent of the Jackie Chan blooper reel during the closing credits (“don’t worry, snow leopards never attack humans . . .”).

Born in China is an impressive production, but it is rather disturbing Disney Nature presumably allowed their Chinese partners to self-censor their ordinarily strong environmental messaging. Once again, that “panda diplomacy” pays dividends for the Mainland government. Nature lovers should definitely take in the wonders Lu records, but they should temper it with an unvarnished look at Beijing’s exploitative land use policies, such as Michael Buckley’s short doc Plundering Tibet (available on Vimeo here). For panda lovers desiring a fix, Born in China opens this Friday (4/21) in theaters throughout the City, including the AMC Empire.