A cameraman films a golden snub-nosed monkey. Photos IC
A snow leopard cub Photo: IC
It may surprise some to hear that the most critically acclaimed film in China this summer is a nature documentary.
Born in China, which received a rather low-key marketing push before its release in the Chinese mainland on August 12, is Disneynature's latest film. According to reports, the studio brought in some of the world's best cinematographers to spend a year and a half in the wilds of China to film several of the country's endangered species including pandas, snow leopards and golden snub-nosed monkeys.
Since this is the first time that Disneynature has focused on a single country for a film, the cast of animal species has clearly been chosen for a reason - many of the animals are representative of the way Westerners see China.
The inclusion of pandas, one the world's living fossils, is easy to understand as they are the symbol of China, while the rare snow leopard represents the country's frontier areas. Another "leading actor" is the golden snub-nosed monkey, which represents the diversity of China's wildlife. Then we have the "extras" of the film: the red-crowned cranes, which represent traditional Chinese culture.
Interestingly enough, all these animal also appeared in Kung Fu Panda, the well-known Hollywood animated film that draws heavily on Chinese culture.
Although this is a nature documentary, it doesn't lack for drama - as the film follows the trend documentaries worldwide have been taking in recent years of using a narrative approach to present themselves. Through Chinese director Lu Chuan's deft editing, the enormous amount of raw footage of these animals collected over the years is spliced into three parallel storylines.
So while the film looks like a wildlife documentary at first glance, at its core it is still a typical family-friendly Disney film. In many ways it's similar to Disney's animated works, in which human emotions are projected onto animal characters, only this time the characters are not cartoon lions or bears, nor CGI beasts like those in The Jungle Book, but real animals.
Similar to Disney's popular animated films Bambi and The Lion King, Born in China also uses a parent-child dynamic to tell its story. All the twists and turns that the families of pandas, snow leopards and monkeys go through involve the parents' basic instinct to protect their family and children. These motivations easily find resonance with the audience.
For instance, when a mother leopard dies from wounds received during a hunt to feed her two cubs, it's hard to not feel for this family or worry about the future of her offspring.
Compared with wildlife documentaries produced by the BBC, Born in China is far less serious. Instead the film is filled with sentiment and wishful thinking, but it all makes sense when combined with the environmental themes in the story and the film's obvious goal to get audiences to care about the environment.
Chinese actress Zhou Xun, who narrates the Chinese language version, also strike a good balance between levity and lecturing. This results in the film feeling like a bedtime story, making it a perfect class for children.
Yuan Dengyu is a Beijing-based film critic.