When table settings run amok, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is watching.
Our review of The BBC High Definition Natural History Colleciton (Blu-ray), published October 9th, 2008, is also available.
"For centuries, travelers to China have told tales of magical landscapes and surprising creatures…"
With the world's eyes on China for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, expect to hear many more tales of this fabled land. Some of them might be about athletes who plan to wear face masks because of the pollution, as a newscaster was intoning as I wrote this review, but there's more to China than pollution in Beijing. Whether you're talking about manmade canals under a harsh desert, rice terraces in a mountainside, mountain air flow that produces tropical jungles, or regions that weren't explored until the 1990s, you're talking about a remarkable place.
Wild China, made by the BBC with China's CTV, explores that land in six chapters, coming out on DVD just in time for the Olympics. True, it has premiered on the Travel Channel, but for the uncut experience, you'll have to buy or rent the DVDs.
Facts of the Case
Wild China features six episodes on two discs. Here are a few of the highlights:
• "Shangri-La": The Dai people hold a Water Splashing Festival, tiny bats live in bamboo stems, and daring botanist Joseph Rock brings home specimens of rare plants.
• "Tibet": Tibetan horns and prayer wheels speak for the faithful, jumping spiders thrive atop Mount Everest, and the mythical "axis of the world" is explored.
• "Land of the Panda": In Beijing, people take caged thrushes to the park to meet other birds and a restaurant features cobra on the menu. Learn about nature's influence on kung fu and efforts to save creatures that are becoming rare. See pandas (a neat trick, since pandas even avoid other pandas).
• "Tides of Change": Conservation efforts are the focus in a look at population growth and pollution along China's eastern seaboard.
The first sight—fisherman on the Li River going out on the water at night, torches blazing on their boats—was one to behold. The one that got me hooked, though, was the sight of hillsides covered with rice paddy terraces, where farmers catch fish as well as grow rice. I was awed by the people who farm the land and their ancestors who first developed their ancient method of farming. This wasn't just a pretty picture; it was a grand visual reminder of the obstacles created by a harsh landscape and the ingenuity with which humans face it.
While some of the scenes, like Mongolian horse races or the setting up of yurts, might be familiar to the average Travel Channel viewer, Wild China manages to provide a few thrilling moments of discovery in each episode. If you have kids, make sure they see the school built inside a huge cavern.
Wild China is a series of dramatic visuals backed up with a narration delivered by Bernard Hill with a voice that's as gentle as a parent reading a bedtime story but packs in a lot of information. It seems to lull and relax me, but I find myself carrying a lot of facts around in my head afterward.
One of the most amazing scenes featured a bat fishing by splashing water in a dark cavern so he could hear the fish. Elsewhere, a pair of hunters going after hornet larvae captured a hornet so they could attach a feather to it for tracking purposes. I was surprised that these things were so fascinating to watch. I attribute that to high-caliber cinematography that manages to be unobtrusive.
The one real extra is a making-of feature, "Hunting Dragons." It's better than most and has a couple of thrilling scenes, including the stringing of cameras across a gorge. Mandarin subtitles, listed as an extra on the package, are nice, but I'm not sure if I'd call them an "extra" feature even if I could read Mandarin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the things Wild China isn't is immersive. By that, I mean that you aren't watching a Michael Palin, an Anthony Bourdain, or a Samantha Brown meeting the people, trying to fish in the rice paddies, or eating the hornet larvae. As beautiful as Wild China is, some of you might prefer to watch the listings or the DVD releases for the sort of personal journey that those travelogue hosts have taken.
Wild China doesn't discuss China's Communist rulers, although Chairman Mao's poor environmental record is criticized briefly. Suspicious minds might attribute that to the Chinese TV co-credit on Wild China, but that isn't the mission of this natural history program. Moreover, it would be hard to make room for a serious discussion of the government when it's hard enough to squeeze the best of China's ancient and natural wonders into six hours.
The most annoying thing about Wild China is those shots from space of each of the regions. They've got a CGI "gee whiz" feel that takes away from the amazing real footage of the show.
After watching Wild China, you may feel like you've seen all there is to see, but it's more like an introduction to the fabled land that Marco Polo once traveled. It is, however, a darned good introduction.
If you want to see a travelogue about China, you want to see this. Even if you don't (or don't think you do), there's bound to be something in Wild China to grab your attention. I wouldn't recommend rushing to watch it all before the Olympics. Rather than power-watching, you'll want to take the time to savor this one.
Not guilty. It's not quite like being Marco Polo, but it's as close as most of us will ever get.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• "Hunting Dragons"
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