“The trees are not yours. You can’t protect them” an adopted son is repeatedly told, except they are his to the extent that they belong to everyone and the consequences of not protecting them, as he will sadly discover, may prove catastrophic. Set mainly in the 1980s in the remote Inner Mongolian mountain region of Moerdaoga National Forest Park, Cao Jinling’s timely eco drama Anima (莫尔道嘎, Mòěrdàogá) asks what happens when you pull the pegs out of the earth and then take them to market, linking the ‘80s economic reforms with the advent of environmental destruction, but eventually finds a kind of serenity in the beauty of the natural world and man’s innate connection with it.
Linzi (Wang Chuanjun), so named because he was found abandoned in the forest as a baby, recounts his tale as a letter to the son he has never met beginning with the moment of childhood trauma which forever altered his destiny and set him at odds with adoptive brother Tutu (Si Ligeng). Out playing one winter while the grownups hunted, Linzi fell into an ice cave and found himself face to face with a bear. Though he felt sure the bear would not harm him, it panicked on hearing his mother’s cries. Hoping to save his brother, Tutu shot the bear but their mother was also killed and, as bears are sacred to the indigenous Ewenki tribe, finds himself an outcast for this act of spiritual transgression. The three remaining family members move to the edge of the forest in order to evade the bear’s curse, eventually joining the local logging industry though Linzi finds himself conflicted in his love of nature while all around him are content to ride roughshod over its majesty.
While Linzi remains a guardian of the forest living a traditional rural life, Tutu is modernity personified falling in with a gang of shady gangsters running an illegal logging and smuggling operation. While the smugglers might be thought of as the bad guys, the logging company are little better. Linzi’s boss expresses exasperation with his reluctance insisting that if they don’t cut the trees down the smugglers will while constantly banging on about his quotas. Obsessed with making money and fearful of an oppressive social order, no one is thinking very much about the long term consequences of deforestation even as Linzi tries to explain to them that it takes a long time to grow a tree and they’re in danger of running out. When the literal flood comes, it will have devastating consequences for all involved.
Aside from their differing views on the tradition/modernity divide, the relationship between the brothers further declines when Linzi encounters a feisty widow living alone in the forest (Qi Xi), herself transgressively killing bears for reasons of revenge seeing as her late husband was eaten by one. Linzi shyly falls in love with her, but so does Tutu who finds it difficult to accept the idea that his awkward younger brother has got himself a wife. “I am cursed forever” Tutu dramatically cries after having committed a double transgression of killing another bear and presenting its pelt as a wedding present, and then attempting to rape the bride. So traumatised is he by a sense of spiritual corruption that Tutu no longer feels connected to nature, an exile from the natural world, and self-destructively embraces the worst aspects of modernity believing that he deserves no better.
Yet even Linzi finds himself betraying his ideals in order to feed his family, falling victim to the “tree breath spell” after participating in the removal of a great old tree. People keep telling him that he doesn’t own the trees and therefore has no right to decide what is done with them, but like everyone else he’s a man of the forest continually displaced while his world is dismantled all around him. He tries to warn the loggers they’re going too far, but they don’t listen to him until it’s already too late. The authorities attempt to fix the problem with a program of “reforestation” but if the price of untempered capitalism is the destruction of the natural world it is nothing more than an act of intense self harm. Linzi attempts to hold back the tide, but is himself exiled from modern society, a sprite bound by the forest unable to leave its boundaries and condemned to watch over it for all eternity as if in penance but also in deep love for the wonders of the Earth which few are now privileged to see.
Anima screens on Aug. 8 at Film at Lincoln Center – Walter Reade Theater as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)