25 Feb 2015

Wolf Totem: Annaud's Signature Mo(nu)ment

If there is ONE film this year which I dearly wish to see, Wolf Totem (Le Dernier Loup) is it. From the teaser and an interview I read in a local newspaper with French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, the movie is everything but ordinary run-of-the-mill. It is an epic, one of those that escaped the Cinemascope age, with landscapes that summon nature to our senses and a storyboard that transports us to lands afar. It is an epic that treats the viewer with intelligence and embraces 3D and the latest digital enhancements parsimoniously like they are the finest ingredients. The result is a pared-down finished article, free from the additives and E numbers that have come to accessorise to the point of clutter the blockbusters of the last two decades in terms of special effects. The film score by James Horner adds to the cinematographic grandeur.

(via Filmosphere)

Film pundits and Annaud aficionados will appreciate his trademark sobriety of filming that leaves time and space for the viewer to view and think and ponder and revel. The storyline is based upon Wolf Totem, a critically-acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel by Chinese author and anti-establishment figure, Lü Jiamin (also known as Jiang Rong, a pseudonym he used to protect his identity). The book was published in 2004.

Jean-Jacques Annaud is a film legend - with a filmography to boot: The Name of the Rose, The Bear, Seven Years in Tibet, Enemy at the Gates and Two Brothers, to name but a few. He is therefore not a novice in terms of dealing with (a) animal matters and (b) Chinese matters, the latter landed him into hot water with the Chinese authorities during the filming of Seven Years in Tibet (his film got banned). Besides Annaud is what I would qualify 'a filmmaker for the long haul', one who takes his time crafting his style, prolific in terms of quality rather than quantity of films.

The stars of the film are scores of Eurasian wolves (35 of them!) picked as pups by the film crew from a Chinese zoo (in Harbin), before being professionally raised and trained for over 4 years until filming began in Inner Mongolia, a remote autonomous region of China.

The story centres at the start of China's Cultural Revolution, as Chinese students are sent out from Peking (Beijing) by the Chinese government to educate poor country folks in the remote province of Inner Mongolia. One of the students, Chen Zhen, becomes fascinated by wolves. He decides to capture a wolf pup and raise him, just as the government launches a wolf culling programme.

Wolf Totem is harked as the biggest Sino-French co-production to date, with a $40 million budget, 80% of which financed by China. More than 7 million spectators saw the movie since its release in China a week ago! It is now set to take France and the rest of the world by storm!

Le Dernier Loup is released today in France.

(Pict source)

18 Feb 2015

Seeing the Wood for the (Majestic) Trees

Despite the Raw Deal faced unrelentlessly by the indigenous Corsican vegetation, as human encroachment is getting bolder about its treatment of the land, there remains somehow one reason to be celebratory. Over the last four years, two of Corsica's most venerable trees have won a nationwide competition as L'Arbre de l'Année (Tree of the Year), organised by French nature magazine Terre Sauvage and French forestry body ONF.

The competition has been going strong since 2011. In 2014, a total of 25,000 tree lovers cast their votes, demonstrating in doing so their attachment and respect towards venerable secular trees (180 tree candidates, of which 24 tree nominees) across the length and breadth of France. Those trees they elected are considered the pride and joy to the land and region they sublimate and the abundant ecosystem they sustain. They have survived wars, invasions, lootings, diseases, decapitation and Acts of God. They still stand today to show us their story, stretching out branches, expanding canopies, casting dappled light and standing the test of time, with fortitude and elegance.

Click the picture to zoom in (pict source)

Back in 2011, a majestic Pistacia lentiscus, a.k.a. mastic shrub, from the Ghisonaccia region, Corsica, won the top prize (Prix de l'Arbre de l'Année 2011). Believed to be between 800 and 1000 years of age, it stands as the oldest pistacia lentiscus in the whole Mediterranean! Height 7m (approx. 23ft.) and trunk circumference 190cm (6ft.2). What is most touching about the tree though is that it once stood in utter neglect, swollen up by vegetation. In 1991, a young shepherdess by the name of Elise Inversin cleared the scrub for her grazing sheep and she unveiled the tree. She was impressed by her discovery but it seems that her awe wasn't shared in equal measure by the other locals. However when a grass fire broke out in the year 2000, Elise urged the firefighters not to attend to her villa ('because you can build it back!') but to save the tree instead. Since then, in a twist of irony, the tree has become a hero.

Then last year, a Castanea sativa (chestnut tree) from Pianello, Corsica, and nicknamed 'L'Arbre à Pain' (the bread tree, in reference to its chestnuts that catered for both humans and farm animals for centuries), put Corsica back on the biodiversity map. It won 'Prix du Jury'. Its credentials as a European heavyweight contender are pretty impressive: 15m (approx. 49ft.) trunk circumference, 12m+ (approx. 39ft.) tall, 800 to 1000 years' old! It comes with bumps, lumps, scars, kinks, warts et al, yet those imperfections make it so perfect. I would be tempted to designate the tree as 'him', as when they come to that age and shape, trees become somewhat anthropomorphic, and if we take the time to linger, we may even feel a spiritual force hanging about them, wrapping them in an aura of mystique. By the way, our tree is a contender for European Tree of the Year 2015. If you love him and wish to show your support, then you have until 28th February to vote for him. The voting process takes less than 10 seconds!

The Castanea sativa in Pianello won Prix du Jury Arbre de l'Année 2014 (picture via Rustica)
Now of course no tree in the world is safe from some chainsaw-wielding nutter on the rampage, be they corporate, governmental or private. But as with everything from the natural world which modern civilisation tampers with, they will be sawing off yet another branch they're sitting on. However from the top of those giant trees, the fall should be deadly! Ooops, did I say that Karma hurts?

Anyhoo, there is no rest for the wicked as Terre Sauvage and ONF have kicked off L'Arbre de l'Année 2015 campaign. Nominate your favourite venerable tree in France (and French territories), until 15th March 2015, and/ or vote for your favourite nominee from 1st April to 1st September 2015. Start off here.

Pict source: ONF
Update (05/03/2015): An amazing total of approx. 185,000 voters cast their votes for The 2015 European Tree of the Year. The winner is... Estonia's Oak Tree on a Football Field (Orissaare, Saaremaa), with nearly 60,000 votes! Our Chestnut Tree in Pianello, Corsica may have only garnered 654 votes, but what truly counts is for awareness to have been raised and for those remarkable trees to be allowed to grace our lands for centuries to come!

Further Resources:

1 Feb 2015

American Sour Cream

Plan does not go according to plan. Expectation strays out of expectation. The conscious decision of departure from our familiar surroundings and surrender our whole to the unknown via means beyond our control, will not promise the expected arrival as per our expectations. A scheduled flight does not guarantee scheduled itinerary. To journey is to take a chance. A trip to the known is a foray into the unknown. Sometimes what you seek does not find you. Instead it puts you on hold, unfolds a catalogue of errs, even errors to fustigate your entity.

You leave in one frame of mind, come back in another. You leave as someone you know, return as someone else. Life happens in weird, muffled, mysterious and unwitnessed ways. It empowers your resilience while robbing you of a little lightness of being. If life is code, a larger-than-life textbook in symbology that closes as you give up the ghost, if life is an insatiable series of lessons to whoever cultivates their sense of curiosity and pushes beyond the comfort zone, if we are supposed to get the problems that are in line with our capacity in resolving them, then I can find solace in the fact that from where I stand, I get the best sunrises and sunsets there are to watch.

Space Shuttle Rodgers, via Kim Stringfellow's Mojave Project