Quick note: the only copy of this one I was able to find online in English was a live performance piece of a Russian band that played their music over the film itself, and the cameraperson who filmed the live performance was mostly interested in capturing the band members over the film itself (the saxophone player, notably, is standing in the way of the camera’s view of the screen for most of the film), so I had a little debate whether or not to technically count this one as totally seen. Still, I did see a majority of it, and with an admittedly impressive musical accompaniment by the band in question, so I’m going ahead with it.
As I was watching Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, a thought kept popping up into my head, and it kept doing so over and over again, especially when I started thinking of how to open my review of the film. I was left unable to continue until I got this thought out of my head and onto the virtual paper, so here you go: Chang is basically Nanook of the North set in the jungles of southeast Asia. Really, I don’t need to go any further than that, that thought so succinctly sums up what Chang is as a film and what it has to offer, but I’m obligated to keep going, so… Chang was directed by the same team (Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) that would go on to give us the original King Kong in the 1930s, and one can see the influence of this earlier work on the classic film about the great ape, but what I kept seeing more and more and much more of was the influence of Robert Flaherty’s seminal and groundbreaking picture on this one.
Chang is purportedly the story of Kru, a man who lives with his small family in northern Siam, or present day Thailand. Isolated from the modernity of the outside world, he lives, he hunts, he farms, and he generally tries to survive the various obstacles that living in the Jungle (which is always capitalized) will tend to throw at a man and his family. I’ve heard it said that Chang, if one is of the opinion that the Unique and Artistic Production award was as much of a Best Picture category in the 1st ceremony as Outstanding Picture was (as I am), could be considered the first and only documentary to be nominated for Best Picture. However, diving even deeper into my Nanook comparison, I’d find that claim a little dubious at best, and a flat-out lie at worst, and if people do make that claim, they should do so knowing that there should fully be a very large asterisk next to such a claim. For being what many purported to be a documentary, especially at the time, there is an awful lot of narrative that takes place here, and while modern day documentaries edit together a narrative from the footage and interviews they’ve captured, Chang instead went into capturing the footage with the narrative in mind, and it is very obvious, watching the film, that this is the case. Even with the easily-identifiable fakery of some of the footage, I was still impressed at how the directors had managed to get some of the shots they did, especially since many of the shots involve either kids, animals, or both, and if you ask any crew of a feature film what is the hardest element to wrangle and control on a film set, the answer will almost always either be kids or animals, or both. Even so, the impressive aspects of the footage aside, it was that the film had been so obviously set up in many of the sequences that had purportedly been captured documentary-style that kept bothering me. The film isn’t really a documentary, but neither is it a straight narrative film; it’s somewhere in the middle, just like Nanook, and it doesn’t have enough of either side to swing it one way or the other.
There’s a big hook to Chang, and it’s hard to ignore when one does make the decision to view this one; the footage is so very exotic and almost alien to most viewers, even today’s audiences, that the decision to sell the film largely on this alone is not altogether unwarranted. It is, however, to be fair, unjustified; that this is the only hook to Chang, and that this hook is basically covering for the manufactured nature of the footage, doesn’t mean that Chang as a film is altogether a viable one, because it really isn’t. To make another early film comparison, it reminded me of the film Freaks; take the angle away from it, and you don’t really have anything special here. Like, at all. I can see how this got a nomination for Unique and Artistic Production, but in all fairness, if the category hadn’t almost specifically been named that, this wouldn’t have gotten a nom for Best Picture in any other form of the award. That, added to the derivative nature of the film, being a jungle-ified knockoff of Nanook, and this ended up losing more points with me than it gained. Nice footage, but too many questionable aspects make this a tough sell for me to recommend to others.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10