Trail of the Panda
Starring: Daichi Harashima, Zhang Qi, Feng Li
Director: Yu Zhong
Category: I (Cantonese)
With its abundance of imagery featuring cuddly panda cubs and the stunning landscapes of rural Sichuan, there's no mistaking the central tenet of Trail of the Panda. More like a nature documentary with a flimsy story attached to it to justify its standing as a feature film, Yu Zhong's Disney-backed production relies heavily on visual pleasures rather than intellectual discourse, making it a good children's matinee film but not something that will grip adult viewers.
The story is centred on a young orphan, Xiaolu (played by Japanese-Chinese child star Daichi Harashima, right), who saves a panda cub in the wild after it is separated from its mother. The film slowly grinds forward as Xiaolu tries to hide the animal from his carer, the rugged, weathered Chen (Zhang Qi), who has found himself on the payroll of a man who seems to be a panda-hunter from the city. This being a feel-good film, however, the intruder (Feng Li) is soon revealed to be someone with more benign intentions than his initial, growling appearance might suggest: he's a scientist who's trying to take the cub back to his research centre to study how the country can provide the best environment for the species to survive.
There are plenty of scenes that will amuse undemanding audiences craving close-ups of the pandas, along with comic sequences featuring Xiaolu's fumbling attempts to nurse and amuse his newfound friend. It's hardly surprising that everything is going to end in tears, as the child braves dangers and denies his own love for the animal to reunite it with its family.
Beyond the melodrama, however, there's an intriguing lack of attention paid to the issues that should have anchored the story: what exactly are the threats these cuddly creatures face, and how are the scientists alleviating them? What should be done to integrate rural folk such as Chen, so that they can help in conservation work, rather than letting them rot in poverty and become easy targets for more cynical wildlife predators? And should the animals have been made to endure the rigours of filmmaking, including being manhandled?
With these issues untouched, Trail of the Panda remains at best populist entertainment that plays well to satisfy urban audiences seeking a heartwarming and amusing journey into Animal Planet territory. But it doesn't offer much in helping its audience understand how the animals live and their importance to nature beyond being subjects of curiosity and wonder.
Trail of the Panda opens today