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.
Questions to be answered
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?