The Last Moose of Aoluguya (Han Da Han): Hong Kong Review

Hong Kong International Film Festival
A riveting, remarkable and very humane look at marginalized lives left to fend for themselves in a rapidly changing country.

Chinese documentary-maker Gu Tao chronicles five years in the life of a listless painter-cum-herdsman from a struggling ethnic minority in northern China.

The final installment in a trilogy of documentaries charting the struggling Ewenki ethnic minority in northern China, The Final Moose of Aologuya is perhaps also the broadest in its scope. Employing footage shot across five years -- a period during which he finished the series' first two entries, Aologuya, Aoluguya (2007) and Yuguo and His Mother (2011) -- Gu Tao has pieced together the trying existence of a creative and contemplative man whose artistic gift and generosity of spirit is whittled away by the natural or artificial realities in the margins of society.

An audacious and powerful visual chronicle of the fortunes of a dying breed -- not just in China but also in the world, given there are also Ewenki clans in Russia and as far afield as in Ukraine -- The Last Moose Aoluguya provides a sharp and sobering glimpse into the despair, gloom and cruel twists of fate, which seem to weigh the group down as they trudge onward through snowy terrain and harsh economic conditions. The odd technical mishap like lens glare or fogging (after a rapid exit from an air-conditioned apartment block -- more of that later) are just minor distractions to this very engaging piece. Now in the middle of a festival run -- its recent award-winning appearance in Hong Kong followed shows at Yamagata, CPH:DOX and Rotterdam, among others -- Gu's film could easily secure more bookings on the circuit and special-screening slots in China-themed programs or campus showcases.

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With his father is a photographer and writer who began documenting the lives of the Ewenki since the 1970s, Gu is well-placed enough to be able to sustain a well-informed and intimate examination of the group. A sense of humanity and melancholy permeates his films, and The Last Moose of Aoluguya is perhaps the most complex of the three yet; not just because of its time span, but also its protagonist's complex personality traits.

As the film begins, Weijia seems like the typical caricature of an indigenous tribesman wallowing in his own misery: The hunter-herdsman appears worse for wear, disheveled and nearly always in a drunken stupor, and could become intoxicated to the point that his mother has to drag him onto a truck to work on a reindeer-locating mission, during which he climbs trees to locate hidden liquor and barely reacts while subjected to a severe beating by his foreman.

But there's more to Weijia than the bumbling around that fills the "first year" of Gu's time spent with the man. As the documentary begins, Weijia greets the camera in Japanese, talks about his university studies in Moscow and then, chugging at a bottle of high-octane liquor, his 15-day spell in prison for firing a gun as he threatened someone to hand over some alcohol. His multifaceted backstory is delivered in Mandarin nearly untempered by a regional accent: The slight slurring could not entirely obscure his sophisticated and sparkling mind, as he rounds up his opening monologue -- a sum-up of the miseries in his life -- by saying, "Look what resettlement did to us!" Later, Weijia delivers more insightful discourses even if he's in a daze, poetic metaphors about, for example, how his tribe lives as if to "face judgment day" as they are dragged into "the atomic age".

Gu has also illustrated well how the Ewenki are at odds with the rapid changes around them. Following Weijia and his co-workers as they trek mountains to look for reindeer and moose, their respect toward fauna and flora are impeccable but never reduced to stereotypical primitivism: It's as much about mutual co-existence and survival, a code which Weijia says the Han -- the overwhelmingly dominant ethnic grouping in China -- never really acknowledge as they come to the Ewenki lands and shoot at everything that moves.

As the film enters the second and third years of Gu's meetings with Weijia, the Ewenki's challenged existence is slowly and gradually revealed and elaborated. The hunters brave waist-high snow to go down the mountain to ask for feed for their flock, but are refused any; they discover rusted traps left by poachers who have long since moved on to ravage other pastures; they visit their old settlements, where a museum dedicated to Ewenki culture stands emptied, the husk of a respect for diversity perhaps long gone. (The Ewenki are one of 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities in China, with 2010 census figures showing a population of just under 31,000 -- 0.0023 percent of the country's total population.)

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Weijia's clash with China's conventional social narrative is dramatically heightened in the fourth year, when the man's mother -- the diminutive but all-action matriarch shown earlier in the film as giving her drunken son a good kicking -- posts a singles ad and managed to bring him together with Xia, a cram-school teacher living in Sanya, the tropical resort-laden city in the southern province of Hainan. So off he goes to a year on the seaside, trading his coats and boots for print T-shirts and slippers while he could also spend a lot of his time painting (with his remarkable skills already shown earlier when he draws on animal skins in a cave back home).

It's certainly a jarring development, and Gu has used it to great effect in illustrating a middle-aged man ill at ease with a life where estrangement far outweighs the material comforts to which he is privy. As Gu's film enters its final phase, Weijia's fate has again ebbed and flowed: He is clean-shaven, well-dressed, drinking canned herbal tea -- but is talking about his time spent in a mental institution (where his girlfriend admitted him to because of his drinking problems). Gu has certainly chosen a nugget of a monologue here: It's a conversation which mirrors the mixed fortunes he talked about at the beginning of the film. The moose can only last so long in the heat, and it's nearly inevitable that this crash course about other lives is to end; riveting and intriguing viewing to the last, Gu's film offers remarkable insight into how the periphery collides with the center, and the heartbreaking human story resulting from such a collision.

Venue: Documentary Competition, Hong Kong International Film Festival

Production Company: Gu Tao Documentary Studio

Director: Gu Tao

Producer: An Dong

Screenwriter: Gu Tai

Cinematographers: Gu Tao, Zhao Jiewei, Honglei

Editor: Gu Tao, Zhao Jiewei

Art Director: Gu Tao

Music: Hongri, Zhiwei

International Sales: Gu Tao Documentary Studio

In Putonghua and Ewenki

98 minutes