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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On the Hunting Ground (Lie chang zha sha), 1984

...their traditions and rituals are often left unexplained, simply let play out for themselves in front of the camera. Like in all his movies, the landscape at times becomes the very subject. His long takes emphasize its vastness, its beauty, and its dangers...

... high-speed, fast-paced, uninhibited wild hunting scenes...

I learned about this movie (also about director Tian Zhuang-Zhuang) from Asian Cinema, an extensive monograph authored by Tom Vick. I used to live by then in DC Area and quite often I was going to the Freer Gallery, where Tom Vick was organizing sometimes screenings of Asian movies. I bought his book at the gallery bookstore, after such a screening. A splendid monograph covering the cinema across the whole Asian continent. The information Tom Vick was giving about Tian Zhuang-Zhuang showed me one of the greatest moviemakers of the Chinese Fifth Generation, in the same rank with Zhang Yi-Mou and Chen Kai-Ge (whose movies I already knew about). One of the first movies made by Tian Zhuang-Zhuang (actually the first made for the big screen, prior to this he had worked for television) had been On the Hunting Ground, in 1984. There was in the book a sentence or two about it: an experimental document/narrative hybrid about a traditional hunting society in Inner Mongolia. The movie was mentioned again by the end of the paragraph: in Tian's movies not only actors had to play, all else was left to play by itself, the universe of traditions and the surrounding landscape becoming active part in the whole, and this way understanding the language (or having it translated) somehow was no more so important - people in On the Hunting Ground were speaking Mongolian and there were no subtitles, not even in Chinese (while the movie was to be screened in China).

During the following years I was able to get most of Tian's movies, some of them on DVD copies, some others found on youTube: not On the Hunting Ground. Each of his movies was a great esthetic experience; with each one I deepened my understanding of his art, his exquisite treatment of everything surrounding the actors: each element plays an active role in his movies, furniture, landscape, magic of rituals - thus the lack of understanding the language (or the lack of translation) is really compensated by the way these elements are put in play. And with each of his movies my desire to watch the others was getting bigger. I was finding then another one, and so on. But On the Hunting Ground was no way to be found. No DVD, no video on youTube, nothing. I was thinking at it with melancholy. The first movie of Tian, spoken in Mongolian, with no subtitles, showing a hunting community far from the modern civilization. I could only imagined it.

A week ago I started to look again for it on the web. It could not be found by his international name (On the Hunting Ground), nor by its Chinese name in Pinyin transliteration (Lie chang zha sha). An idea came to my mind suddenly: to look for its Chinese title in hieroglyphs! I didn't know it, but there was a way I decided to try: using Google Translator, I could get the Chinese translation for On the Hunting Ground. I knew that Google Translator provided also a transliteration for the non-Latin alphabets, so I could compare the result with the Pinyin that I already had! I made several attempts till I got the transliteration: not the order of words as in the Pinyin title, however close. I tried then to change the order of the hieroglyphs till I got the matching title!

I started then to look on the web with the four hieroglyphs, and Gosh! I found the movie: four consecutive videos on a CCTV site!

no copyright infringement intended

All this being said, let's discuss a bit the movie. If you are against animal cruelty, then don't watch it. The hunting scenes are real, in all their mercilessness and ferocity: a team of hunters on their horses, some with rifles, some with bows, some with maces, their dogs, monuments of brutality; and the abundant prey walking innocently on the abundant grass, deers, rabbits, big birds, without any chance to escape, dying without understanding what's happening to them and why. Nietzsche would have loved it.

But that's their life, of that community of hunters, doing it since immemorial times. That land has always been hunting ground, the imperial family was coming there in bygone times,  for huge parties of riding their horses, running their dogs, killing the prey... the emperors are no more, the villages of hunters are still there and will remain.

Yes, the hunting scenes in the movie are dreadful, but one cannot make otherwise a documentary about the real life there, within that community so remote from the references of modern civilization. Apocalyptic images: the camera follows uninhibited the hunters, the dogs, the prey, and captures perfectly the rhythm, the dynamic of the whole. We are told this way an essential story, about the primary instincts defining our nature: the fight to kill and to survive. In contrast, the scenes showing the village life, and the animal farming, are quiet, serene, slowly following sunsets and sunrises over the immense pastures, populated by flocks of cattle and sheep: here is another story told, the coexistence of man and nature. Hunting and farming, like two universes in a fragile balance.

And like in all these movies of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang, a spiritual sense sublimated in the story. The hunted deer is beheaded, and the trophy is hanged on a post. Then hunters bow in deep worship: the paradigm of deity accepting in innocence to be sacrificed for redeeming the world, a primary truth beyond any religious convictions and affiliations, just that: you kill the innocent, you kill the divine, and the divine is revealed.

(Tian Zhuang-Zhuang)



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