'Wild China' opens with subtle grace. In its first episode, “Heart of the Dragon,” the series travels to the rice paddies of South China and reveals some of the oldest known man-made structures in the world. From there, we get to see harvesting rituals in Guizhou, a community living in caves near Zhongdong, and traditional fisherman practicing their craft on the Li River. Along the way, a variety of birds, endangered primates, turtles, and other wildlife capture the crew’s imagination and attention. “Shangri-La” moves to the base of the Himalayas and the Nujiang River. After documenting the lush plantlife of the region, the second episode moves on to the snowy stretches of Kawakarpo, the diverse ecosystem of the Gaoligong Mountains, and the many cultures that inhabit the surrounding Yunnan province. Not only do elephants, jungle mammals, small apes, and other creatures make prominent appearances, but the NHU begins to look at the ever-intrusive presence of China’s expanding cities.
Carefully sidestepping the more controversial elements of its political struggles, ”Tibet” focuses on the Qingzang Plateau, the Buddhists who call it home, and the intriguing religious practices that influence everything in the region. More interestingly, the climate changes dramatically over the course of a few miles, leaving a variety of species to live side-by-side with humans. Moving across the Plateau, the crew devotes coverage to yaks, foxes, bears, and snakes, as well as the hot springs, freezing deserts, and vast hillsides of the area. “Beyond the Great Wall” heads north to the regions situated around… you guessed it… the Great Wall of China. More than a dry investigation into the construction and purpose of the Wall, this episode turns its eye to the ice fisherman of Manchuria, Mongolian horsemen who call miles of grassland home, and the shifting sands of the Taklimakan Desert. It also follows herds of reindeer, rare gazelle, wild horses, and trained eagles used for hunting.
As the series draws to a close, “Land of the Panda” turns to the Mandarin-speaking peoples of Central China. This episode delves into the tenuous relationship between man and beast, as well as civilization and the natural kingdom. It not only dedicates time to China’s economy and political history, it weaves in tales of nearly-extinct alligators, revered animals in Beijing, and the pandas and endangered animals of the Qinling Mountains. Finally, “Tides of Change” traces China’s coast, stopping along the way to spend time with migrating birds, jellyfish, crabs, and white dolphins. It even gives a glimpse into the lives of fisherman, oyster harvesters, and island dwellers. While it doesn’t offer enough thematic closure to the series as a whole, it nevertheless does its job as another engaging episode.
Okay, so ‘Wild China’ is a gorgeous documentary packed to the brim with remarkable cultures, captivating factoids, and breathtaking photography… but does it come up short? Honestly, it depends on what you’re looking for. While the series gives a thorough and extensive overview of China’s people, animals, and societies, it doesn’t dig into its more controversial political decisions, economic issues, human rights violations, or relations with other nations. Each episode has brief glimpses into each, but the production isn’t willing to cross its established line and take its investigation any deeper. As a result, this particular visit to China occasionally comes across like a tourist video rather than a scrupulous study of the sprawling nation. Granted, these elements are hardly the point and I wouldn’t expect the NHU to devote much time to them, However, it’s clear that a lot of effort was put into avoiding the subjects altogether. Oftentimes, such subjects don’t even get a passing mention, even when it seems everything being discussed directly relates to one or the other.
Regardless, ‘Wild China’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives a revealing glimpse into the far corners of the country. Once again, I have no idea how the NHU managed to capture some of the imagery that fills the documentary and, once again, I was bowled over by the riches and wonders of another culture. In my humble opinion, anyone with the faintest interest in China or the Asian mainland should give this documentary a spin. It may take a while to soak it all in, but the experience is well worth the investment.
Even though it was shot using the same high definition cameras as its BBC documentary brethren, ‘Wild China’s 1080i/VC-1 transfer doesn’t exhibit the polish or sheen of ‘Planet Earth,’ the fine texture detailing of ‘Galapagos,’ or the bold palette of ‘Ganges.’ That’s not to suggest the presentation is a complete loss, but rather that it lacks strength and consistency when compared to similar BD documentaries on the market. Primaries are washed out much of the time, colors lack vibrancy and stability on seemingly random occasions, and black levels aren’t always fully resolved. To make matters worse, some key shots are downright soft, others suffer from hazy backgrounds, and even more are plagued with light artifacts and source noise.
On the upside, contrast is above average, some episodes look better than others, and detail is generally sharp enough to make it obvious you’re watching a high-def disc. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Wild China’s transfer isn’t problematic enough to ruin this release, but it merely offers an average picture that will frustrate fans of other, more impressive BBC Blu-ray releases.
If you’ve watched ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Galapagos,’ or ‘Ganges,’ then you should know exactly what to expect from ‘Wild China’s proficient but underwhelming Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. To its credit, narrator Bernard Hill (King Theoden in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series) sounds pitch perfect -- his languid narration is crisp, properly centered, and well prioritized within the mix. Unfortunately, the rear speakers are relegated to environmental ambiance (in all but a few scenes), LFE support is sparse and uninvolving, and the documentary just doesn’t have the sonic oomph that will win an audiophile’s affections. While I haven’t had an opportunity to compare the BD audio package to the standard DVD, I doubt there’s a significant difference. Ultimately, ‘Wild China’s DD track doesn’t suffer from any technical deficiencies, but it doesn’t add much value to the release either.
Like its DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Wild China’ only includes a 27-minute behind-the-scenes featurette called “Hunting Dragons.” It’s a lengthy and interesting look at the camera techniques, production difficulties, and cameraman dedication. While there isn’t anything too exciting or groundbreaking to see, it still offers a thorough examination of the efforts and hard work of the documentary’s crew.
’Wild China’ is yet another fascinating and stunning documentary from the BBC that marries fact and photography into a beautiful production. I would have preferred some more depth, but as an introduction to the sights and cultures of the vast nation, I was more than impressed. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of this Blu-ray release since it falters with a disappointing video transfer, an underwhelming audio track, and a slim supplemental package. I don’t think you should skip this one altogether, but you should use your hard-earned cash to pick up ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Galapagos,’ and ‘Ganges’ before adding this one to your collection.