Written by Patrick Hao
“It takes hundreds of years for a tree to grow. But just minutes to cut it down.” Those are words said by Linzi (Eric Wang) which serves as a thesis for Jingling Cao’s feature debut, Anima. The line doesn’t merely address the massive deforestation and exploitation of nature, but the way that local and indigenous culture are quickly being eradicated in the process. Anima captures this conflict in a meditative drama centered around a single family.
Set mainly in the 1980’s, the film follows Linzi and his brother, Tutu (Si Ligeng), of the Evenki ethnic group, a pastoral group of people who live in Mongolia’s Moerdaoga Forest. Their childhood is defined with tragedy when Linzi falls into a bear cave as a toddler. His mother jumps in to protect him but is swiftly killed by the bear before Tutu was able to shoot the bear and save his brother. The Evenki view bears as deeply spiritual animals, representative of Evenki ancestors, and anyone who kills one would be cursed. This fear prompts Linzi and Tutu’s father to move them out of their village.
As adults, the two brothers begin on different paths. Tutu, scarred by his experiences, embraces possible wealth and modernity that the newly arrived lumber company provides as part of China’s economic development program at the time. Linzi, on the other hand, embraces the traditions of the Evenki and feels uncomfortable with the lumber company’s infiltration into the sacred forest. This brings conflict between the two brothers which is further exacerbated by the appearance of Chun (Qi Xi), whom both brothers have affections for.
Filmed in Maerdaoga National Forest, the setting is captured with great deliberation. Shot by Mark Lee Ping Bing, a frequent collaborator with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, there is a spirituality to the environment that flows into the characters living in them. It has great beauty and many dangers, from sub-freezing temperatures to torrential downpours. In that way, the respect that is shown to nature is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala or Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God.
Cao’s filmmaking serves to fully engross the audience into Linzi and Tutu’s way of life. We see how they live, both with each other, other people, and with nature itself. There’s time to relish in the trivialities of everyday life. But the film can be difficult. Cao emphasizes poeticism and introspection over easy narrative delights – not too dissimilar to the films of the aforementioned Hou Hsiao-Hsien. For some, it might take time to adjust to the pacing of the film, but if you stay with it you’ll be rewarded.
It would be reductive to just call this film an environmentalist drama. Anima is more interested in being a rumination on the way modernity and industrialization have separated people from their culture and the natural world – the existential crisis of many indigenous people today. A crisis that has already seeped into the rest of us.