Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, Lin Huida, 2022)

One of the biggest animation franchises in Mainland China, Boonie Bears began airing as a children’s cartoon show back in 2012 and has produced over 600 episodes across 10 seasons. The latest movie, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, xióng chūmò: chóngfǎn dìqiú), is the franchise’s eighth theatrical movie and again proved popular at the box office on its Lunar New Year release. As might be expected for a series revolving around woodland creatures, the first antagonist was a logger who later came round and teamed up with the animals to protect the forest, the franchise has a strong if potentially subversive ecological theme which reverberates throughout Back to Earth. 

In fact, the chief job of unreliable younger brother bear Bramble (Zhang Bingjun) is sorting rubbish into the appropriate bins to keep the forest tidy. Daydreaming he casts himself as superhero battling a giant trash monster symbolising the destructive effects of the buy now pay later philosophy of the modern consumerist society. In any case Bramble’s cheerful days of chasing ice cream and just generally enjoying life in the forest are disrupted when he’s almost wiped out by bits of a falling spaceship and becomes the repository for all of its knowledge. This brings him to the attention of alien space cat Avi who needs his brain to locate his ship but is also being chased by a gang of nefarious criminals led by an amoral entrepreneur who wouldn’t let a little thing like the survival of the Earth interfere with her desires for untold wealth and power. 

As it turns out Avi also has a few lessons to offer as to the costs of irresponsible industrialisation having been born in an ultra-advanced cat society buried deep in the Earth’s core. The over mining of a valuable mineral soon destroyed the environment forcing the cats to flee into space looking for a new home. Avi hopes to return to his home city which lies abandoned as a kind of cat Atlantis accessible only with a valuable necklace which he needs Bramble’s help to retrieve. To begin with, the relationship between the pair is less than harmonious, though they soon bond in their shared quest to stop the evil corporate entities taking over the ancient technology and causing the death of the forest through their insatiable greed. 

Then again as one of the other creatures had put it, “you can’t rely on Bramble”, cross that he never pulls his weight and is always off in a daydream or chasing the next tasty treat. While Avi poses as an adorable kitten trying to convince Bramble to use his brain to help get the spaceship back, the others become even more disappointed in him believing that he’s taken against the cat out of jealously and resentment. Yet the lesson that everyone finally has to learn is that it doesn’t matter if Bramble isn’t the smartest or most hard working because he is strong and kind and has plenty to offer of his own. His gentle bear hug eventually saves the world in healing the villainess’ emotional pain so she no longer has any need to fill the void with cruel and ceaseless acquisition. 

Aside from the gentle messages of the importance of protecting the forest from the ravages of untapped capitalism, after all “this is our only homeland”, the film packs in a series of family-friendly gags including a surprising set piece in which Bramble dresses up as Marilyn Monroe to recreate the famous subway vent moment from The Seven Year Itch, while a pair of eccentric scrap merchants with a taste for rhyme provide additional comic relief. Even in the villains get a lengthy cabaret floorshow to mis-sell their evil mission to the guys from the forest belatedly coming to Bramble’s rescue. In any case, thanks to everyone’s support and encouragement Bramble finally gets to become the hero he always wanted to be proving that he’s not unreliable and even if he doesn’t always succeed is doing his best. Boasting high quality animation, genuinely funny gags, some incredibly catchy tunes and well choreographed musical sequences along with a warmhearted sense of sincerity, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is another charming adventure for the much loved woodland gang.

Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is in UK cinemas from 27th May courtesy of The Media Pioneers (screening in a family-friendly English dub).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Factory Boss (打工老板, Zhang Wei, 2014)

factory bossGenerally speaking, capitalists get short shrift in Western cinema. Other than in that slight anomaly that was the ‘80s when “greed was good” and it became semi-acceptable to do despicable things so long as you made despicable amounts of money, movies side with the dispossessed and downtrodden. Like the mill owners of nineteenth century novels, fat cat factory owners are stereotypically evil to the point where they might as well be ripping their employees heads off and sucking their blood out like lobster meat. Zhang Wei’s Factory Boss (打工老板, Dagong Laoban) however, attempts to redeem this much maligned figure by pointing out that it’s pretty tough at the top too.

Shenzhen used to have over 1000 toy factories, but following the worldwide financial crisis, there are barely 100 left. Dalin is one of the lucky ones still holding out, if just barely. The employees haven’t been paid in a couple of months and there are debts outstanding which are only being held at bay thanks to a series of promises. The boss, Lin Dalin, has negotiated a massive deal to manufacture a large order for an American company which just might save them but he’s also biting off a little more than he can chew. The workforce are starting to get antsy – they’ve already burnt a car on the forecourt and some are talking about a walkout. To get this order through he’ll have to ask for even more from his already over stretched employees.

Just around this time, a young, ambitious reporter has developed a bee in her bonnet about workers’ rights at the local factories and has taken an undercover job at Dalin hoping to expose some of its shortcomings to the outside world. What she finds is worse than she’d ever imagined – faulty ventilation systems, air thick with the sickening smell of melting plastic, illegal “overtime” schedules, no breaks, shortened lunch times and a culture of shame and bullying intended to cow workers into playing along.

The film encourages us to see Lin as a generally “good” person. It says he wasn’t like this prior to the financial collapse and that it’s the current environment that has turned him into a ruthless exploiter of the “tools” at his disposal – i.e. his employees. Following on from the communist system, factories are still run like work groups where the employee base becomes a surrogate family with everyone living in shared workers accommodation on the complex. The workers also get lunch at the factory (but this comes out of their final pay).

Lin, like a feudal lord, sees himself as a paternal figure who has a duty to protect these people, but this means ensuring the factory’s survival. This is how he justifies his increasingly exploitative behaviour to himself, that if the factory goes under all of these people, and some of them are now old having worked there for 25+ years, will lose their jobs and with all the other factories in the same position, they will be left with nothing.

However, though Lin never behaves in an extravagant or intimidating fashion, it is also true that he lives all alone in a mansion drinking imported wine and chatting to his daughter via a shiny macbook while she studies overseas. He complains there’s little profit in his business these days, but he doesn’t seem to be tightening his own belt while his employees worry about their futures.

One of Lin’s friends has sold his local factory and relocated to Burma where the labour is even cheaper and there are even fewer labour laws. Lin is reluctant because he wants to make his nation great again and reverse the meaning attached to the phrase “Made in China” whilst also helping to build a better future for the people under his care but he is also at the mercy of market forces.

Thanks to a late in the game change of sympathies from our lady reporter, we’re pointed towards the real villains which would be the international corporations who manufacture in China because it’s cheaper but are squeamish about the country’s treatment of the working classes. These companies say they enforce strict conditions and make personal factory inspections, but their commitment is only really halfhearted. They know the reason why the labour is so cheap, but they drive the prices down anyway preaching against sweatshops but knowing, economically speaking, that there is no Earthly way these targets can be met on time and on budget with workers’ rights fully respected to the degree stated in their own mission statements. As soon as labour laws are revised in China and wages necessarily rise, they will simply switch to using cheaper labour forces in less developed parts of the world.

To be frank, this is just capitalism. A business is a business and each will constantly be looking to maximise their own profit margin. They will push and push until they feel resistance, and then they will push some more to find out how much their opponents will push back. No matter which way you spin it, the little guys will pay. Yes, Lin too is a victim, but it’s a little rich to pretend the consequences for a man like him are the same as they are for his employees. China has moved from the “Iron Rice Bowl” system of guaranteed lifetime employment to the relative insecurity of global capitalist society but its modernisation has been so rapid that the base line workers have been left with the rawest deal – poor pay and conditions coupled with the constant pressure of possibly being let go or being forced into exploitative arrangements just to keep a job which barely feeds you.

Factory Boss is an interestingly constructed look at the little seen life of the everyday factory which has a healthy level of naturalistic feeling detail. Zhang does however fall into a slightly didactic approach, particularly in his hagiographic depiction of Lin, and some of the later monologues appear oddly theatrical in contrast to the straightforward nature of the rest of the film. He catches China in the midst of its transformation, trapped in a moment of indecision as it finds itself cast in the role of middle man offering its services in the service of the enterprise of others while the individual dreams of men like Lin who long to set up on their own are crushed by forces beyond their control. Redeeming the figure of the fat cat is a nice a idea and Zhang certainly succeeds in casting Lin as a decent man corrupted by circumstance but his central message that the middle man needs love too and the real mean daddies are greedy corporate overlords is one which, true as it may be, can’t help feeling a little trite.

Reviewed as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2016.