Born in China
Wildlife documentary film opens on Friday
It is like Zootopia— but real. Born in China, a production of Disneynature, an independent film unit of Walt Disney, and Shanghai-based SMG Pictures, is ready for release on the Chinese mainland on Friday.
The Chinese-language Sino-US production is directed by Lu Chuan.
“I am an animal lover, and I’m always ready to try something different,” Lu, 45, said at a promotional event for the film in Beijing last week.
The film follows the daily lives of a panda and her daughter in Sichuan province’s Wolong National Nature Reserve; a snow leopard family in Yushu county, Qinghai province; a group of golden snubnosed monkeys in Hubei province’s Shennongjia National Nature Reserve near the Yangtze River; and members of several other species.
Though the film is being called a documentary, perhaps it is better to describe it as a real-life adventure film based on its vivid narration and the use of voice-over.
Lu began directing in 2002 with the thriller The Missing Gun and went on to direct City of Life and Death, a 2009 film on the Nanjing Massacre. Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004), his film on the conflict between rangers and poachers in Qinghai’s Kekexili, is still considered among the best Chinese films on environmental protection.
He has included Tibetan antelopes from Kekexili again in Born in China.
Lu says the new film isn’t metaphysical but something fundamental and simple— to tell a good story.
Probably to achieve that goal, Walt Disney created a mesmerizing storyline based on real imagery of animals.
“A good story translates from culture to culture, from country to country,” Roy Conli, a producer of the film, says in Beijing. “Some themes are universal, and their (the animals’) behavior inspires us.”
Conli from Disney Animation Studios produced Tangled in 2010 and the Oscar-winning Big Hero 6 in 2014.
“What we have crafted is both epic and intimate. The balance of humor, heart and adventure is truly stunning,” he says.
For example, Meimei, the baby panda, is depicted as a curious girl. Taotao, the main role in a monkey story, is like a rebellious adolescent.
Zhou Xun, a top Chinese actress, has dedicated her voice to the film.
“It’s about animals, but it’s also about family and love. The film will enable people to easily find an emotional resonance,” Zhou says.
“When I recall my childhood, I naturally find the right voice.”
In 2015, she dubbed for the Chinese version of Conservation International’s short film Nature Is Speaking, and that experience may have played a role in her getting invited to the Sino-US production. Her voice injects a soft tone into the film.
“These are animals that, for the most part, could only be filmed in China,” says Phil Chapman, a cinematographer for the film. “We needed a much more intimate connection with lots of detail in order to build the story.”
He was a coproducer for the BBC’s renowned six-part nature documentary series Wild China.
“That can get really difficult, capturing that level of footage, particularly with some of these animals who’ve never set eyes on a human being before. We weren’t sure it was even possible,” Chapman says.
Light conditions were sometimes not perfect for filming, for example, but the crew was told by people of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau that the place’s weather changes frequently. When confronting hailstorms, the cinematographers eagerly awaited sunshine and rainbows, but were instead suddenly met with blizzards.
Filming was done simultaneously in five locations across China, each taking 18 months. One team even waited for nearly three months to capture footage of snow leopards, and the whole storyline was nearly abandoned at one point. Lu says the filming plan for some species like the Siberian tiger and the Yangtze River dolphin changed due to the difficulty in getting enough shots.
As the eighth production of Disneynature, Born in China is the first one in the series that fully focuses on one single country.
“It’s rare to find films focusing on Chinese animals on the big screen,” says ZhangWei, president of Shanghai Oriental Pearl Media Co Ltd, which owns SMG Pictures.
“It will remind people to respect nature and life through the recording of growth of these rare species.
“High-quality films telling Chinese stories abroad are still few. Perhaps this is the start when more ‘made in China’ productions will take Chinese culture overseas.”
Born in China will be translated into 16 languages for global audiences. It will play in North American theaters on April 22, 2017, when Earth Day is celebrated.
BorninChina, a Sino-US production directed by Lu Chuan, will be released on the Chinese mainland on Friday.
From left to right: Actress Zhou Xun, producer Roy Conli and Lu Chuan at a promotional event in Beijing.