Today’s Inner Mongolia (China), bordering Mongolia and Russia, is inhabited by Han, Mongols, Manchu, Evenki, Oroqen, Daur and many other ethnic groups. Constant migration, exchange, conflict, co-habitation, and intermarriage among their ancestors (Mongolic peoples, Tungusic peoples, Turkic peoples, and Han Chinese) have largely written the regional history, continuously catalyzing the assimilation and differentiation of languages and cultures. Its cultural complexity makes for a tale filled with charm; however, a consequence of this can be found in the lesser accurate (self-)writings about the region, which can easily verge on the edge of romanticization and/or exoticization.
During the PRC era, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was one major destination of the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement; it also witnessed the political purge against the Mongols during the Cultural Revolution. It was the beneficiary of the central government’s minority policies (not bound by the One Child Policy, lower barriers to schools and jobs, etc.) as well as the victim of its own vigilance against local ethnicism. The primeval forest area in eastern Inner Mongolia has experienced predatory exploitation by the Republic of China, Russia, Japan, and PRC; ethnic groups such as Oroqen and Evenki who inhabited the mountains were then asked to leave and give up their hunting and pastoral lifestyle. After the 1980s, the breeze of Reform and Opening Up that started in Shenzhen could not reach the inland north; while the economy of southern and central China took off, Inner Mongolia still relied on its already overexploited forest, mineral and livestock resources, and suffered from the aftermath of industrial decline, economic downturn, population exodus and environmental degradation, as experienced by the whole of northern China. Some remedial measures were taken around the turn of the century in a late and abrupt manner such as the logging ban, which left tens of thousands of workers finding themselves laid-off overnight, having to look once again for a new home.
The film Anima tells a story about the Evenki and Han Chinese right before the logging ban. It is, however, not so much about the history than an individual’s obsession with his heritage of Evenki beliefs. The persistence of this character, Linzi (Wang Chuanjun), to never leave the forest behind, leads him to buck the trend of the times when everyone else, including his family, was ready to do whatever they could to live more affluently. In terms of results, his actions lead to a paranoid form of environmentalism, but the starting point is not a scientific concern but a traditional belief. This not only flattens both the environmental and the ethnic issue, but is also distant from the overall context of contemporary China, as symbolized by Linzi’s later solitary life.
The film relies on the reverence of the Evenki for nature as its spiritual foundation. Nevertheless, as a whole they are nearly fully silent and absent, solely represented by the adopted son Linzi who is by blood Han, and the “black sheep” son Tutu (Si Ligeng) who betrayed the traditions. The female protagonist, Chun (Qi Xi), who is also an Evenki and loved by both brothers, is self-reliant and daring in the first half of the story, seemingly showing the bold attractiveness of the ‘forest’ women, who are not bound by Confucian ethics like Han Chinese. However, she quickly loses her edge after marrying Linzi and becomes an unhappy and tiresome figure who simply performs her function as a wife and mother. Linzi and Tutu’s parents, the mother accidentally shot dead by an arrow when they were little boys and the father retreating into himself, seldom appear in the story. Each Evenki character, including Linzi, carries their own loneliness, secluded by invisible walls. They can never seem to understand each other, which, unfortunately, serves to indicate that the director hasn’t acquired enough understanding of their ethnicity, leaving her unable to tell their story and fabricating one-sided characters. On the other hand, the falling apart of the Evenki could of course be seen as a consequence of the changing times or the Han immigration, but it is never the interest of the film to go deeper in that direction either. Eventually, the occasional flashes of ethnic cultural symbols do not carry much connotation except for visual pleasure. As these elements of culture are brought together without hesitation, the Evenki are exiled in the director’s narrative about the otherness, one where they’ve been deprived of their community, their habitat, and their collective memory.
The Bad Seed
There are those occasions when the reason for an encounter with a film takes places outside of festivals and professional screenings. Coming across a brief review of Anima by screenplay writer and first-time director Cao Jinling, a mention of where it was shot, where the story takes place, stood out.
Inner Mongolia is where my colleague Z is from and this was enough to warrant watching the film. It also coincided with a number of articles describing how the Chinese government was, as is its wont, imposing its own curriculum on elementary and secondary schools, slowly eradicating the presence of Mongol and other indigenous cultures in Northern China. French writer Olivier Rollin’s book, Extérieur Monde (Gallimard, 2019), had appeared at that time, recounting tales taken from his travels around the world. He mentions helping, if not outright saving, an elderly woman while in Inner Mongolia, a Chinese tourist.
Once this sapling of an idea takes root, the thematic possibilities in addressing the film’s narrative turn into a forest awaiting to be cut down. Not unlike the opening section of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. After a heroic feat that leads his character’s side to victory, he is both promoted and granted a posting of his choice. He asks to be assigned to the frontier, where First Nations still thrive. When asked why he would ask for such a place, he answers that he wants to see it before it disappears. Does Anima rely on similarly archetypal mechanisms of quests? A Han baby, Linzi, is left at the doorstep of a soon to be widowed native father already raising an infant son, Tutu. As they grow up, their rivalry includes the love of an indigenous widowed hunter and the fate of the forest surrounding them, a being in its own right according to the beliefs of the Evenki people. The finding of a child and its impact on the destiny, the culture and environment of a nation abounds in international cinema and literature. Here, Linzi grows up, the woman falls for him rather than for Tutu, the native son. Linzi is unable to save the forest from logging, from deforestation, and from the flooding, a common act of divine retribution. Meanwhile, his brother embraces crime, money, and other urban attributes.
This narrative would seemingly lend itself to a position that this is what happens when Chinese government policies come to town; there is no happy end. The film however opts to lean towards all manners of destruction as attributes and consequences of the conflict that exists between the brothers, rather than say China. Yet one side does win. Would Linzi have ever been allowed to save the forest and preserve the Evenki way of life? In an interview with our friend Karen Severs, programmer at the New York Asian Film Festival and in-house moderator at the FCCJ in Tokyo, Cao Jinling enthused in informing us that there were only 209 Evenki members left and that one of them was the cultural consultant for her film.
The striking shots of the forests, notably its birch trees from one season to the next, were the result of Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography. Lee Ping-bing is a regular collaborator of Hou Hsiao Hsien, including on The Assassin; he’s also worked with Hirokazu Koreda (Air Doll) and Tran Anh Hung (Norwegian Wood, L’Éternité) among several other directors. Cao Jinling mentions they had met in Tibet, where she asked him to be his DoP when she would direct her first feature . Yet Anima’s opening sweeping drone shots are generic and unsurprising; the strategy quickly becomes one of taking us inside the living mazes of the forest, where the huntress lives. It wants to be so many films at once, an eco manifesto/the witnessing of a culture wiped away/ a denunciation of the greed led on by deforestation/a love story with a witch who loses her power once she chooses to leave the forest. We had planned to inquire which of these she wanted to make as we noticed how carefully so many of her shots were set up and announced.
I still hope to see Inner Mongolia, before…
1- We have not seen the ‘extreme adventure’ film 77 Days, directed by Hantang Zhao, nor are we familiar with how Tibetan culture was represented.
- In the movie, Tutu is a pure-blooded Evenki, but he betrayed the forest; Linzi is a Han Chinese by blood, but he identifies more with the traditional beliefs of Evenki in spirit. The contrast between these two brothers constitutes the biggest conflict in the whole film; does this arrangement have some kind of concern to the reality of ethnic relations? Can you tell us about your own experience and feelings about ethnic relations in Moerdaoga or Hulunbuir?
- Chun displays a strong character in the first half of the story, but after she marries Linzi, she loses her edge and radiance and becomes a wife and mother who simply performs her function. Is this transformation inevitable? Or are there any other possibilities for Chun’s fate?
- Some audience reports have described Anima as an environmental film, do you agree with this? What was the original intention of the script?
- Did you discuss the storyline with the people of the Evenki tribes during the writing and shooting of the film? If so, what feedback did they give?
- In the credits at the end of the film, we see that the film was produced with the support of several local government departments. Was the communication with the local government smooth? What was the feedback on the plot of the film from the authorities?
- What do you think about the tourism industrialization of the daily life of the ethnic minorities in China such as the Evenki?
- Other films that focus on the forest areas of three northeastern provinces and Inner Mongolia include Gu Tao’s Han Da Han (2013) and Yu Guangyi’s Timber Gang (2006). Is Anima consciously entering into a dialogue with these documentaries, or is it intentionally different from them?
- In Anima, the issues such as ethnic minorities’ migration from mountains to cities and towns, exchanging guns for houses, as well as unemployment and migration after the ban on natural forest logging, etc., are called out, but they are not developed in detail. What is the place of these real-life issues in the story structure of the film?
Questions from Z.
- -Could you explain to our readers the production process of such a film? You explained in interviews that the film was shot over 40 days in winter and 40 days in Summer and Autumn, and that the film took two years to make. What would be the ratio between regional/state production and private production companies for such a duration?
- -Much has been made of the Winter conditions and the scenes shot in the forests. Did you rely on Mark Lee-Bing Ping to get the shots -in a kind of documentary style- or were each shot carefully planned and if so, how many takes would do per scene? He had done extraordinary forest shots in the Assassin. Were you hoping his cinematography would provide similar drama?
- -The film tells several stories at the same time; the tribal myths/the sibling rivalry/the threat to a way of life/romance of the woods etc. You were weaving all those narratives together. Were you attempting different directing styles for each?
- -Discussion with members of indigenous people in order to legitimize international films or media works shot on their lands has become an ethically political requirement nowadays. There have been recent examples of this in Japan with the Ainu community. In your film, the daughter of an Evenki matriarch served a similar function. Do you think this is relevant for audiences in China, is it expected?
- -Many reviewers of the films have commented on the Moerdaoga National Forest Park in Inner Mongolia, and its ecology. In recent months, the Chinese government has been active in Inner Mongolia schools, changing much of the curriculum. Your film appears however to celebrate the differences, and one could argue that international interest is in part due to this. Is Anima perceived differently in China; is it more of a ‘folk tale’, a fiction?
- -We are based in Tokyo; Animism also contributed to define Japan’s relationship to nature and many Japanese directors have explored this. Are there any films from Japan that you connect with, that might share concerns or interests similar to your film?
- -Birch tree forests have a distinct quality, white trees in the snow give them a more spectral quality. Was this feature important for you?
- -Some filmmakers in Eastern and northern Europe, as well as in Quebec, Canada, filmed in similar forests. Are there international directors that are references for you?
- -Lastly, you wrote a recent script, Chinese Criminal Investigators, which you said would be directed by Xin Yukun. But will your next project continue to explore eco issues ?
Questions from S.