The appeal of the European who goes native dates back at least to the Romantics and Joseph Conrad. Here is the story of a young Swiss man who has gone to live in the remote rain forest of Borneo. Skirting the built-up regions, Jan Roed and his team canoed into the forest to profile that
man, Bruno Manser, in TONG TANA - A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF BORNEO. There is also an environmental slant, since Manser has a price on his head due to his opposition to the region's logging industry.
The Penangs among whom Manser lives hunt gibbons and wild pigs with blow-guns and poison arrows. In a small clearing we watch one family group butcher a pig, when Manser appears undramatically. His dark hair cut in the local manner, Manser does not appear all that European until the camera
catches his wire-rimmed glasses and larger bone structure. Ironically, he wears only a loin-cloth, while the first Penangs shown wear some Western clothing. Manser even has a pet monkey, seen clinging to his neck in almost all the sequences; the Penangs seem almost all to have pet monkeys tethered
to bamboo stalks. Although apparently treated no differently from any other local, Manser has kept notebooks on the various flora and fauna of the region, while the narration recalls the Penang folklore behind animal habits.
Much of TONG TANA chronicles the daily chores of Penang life, from the preparation of the poison arrows to cutting down bamboo for lean-to hutments. Manser matter-of-factly talks about the potency of the poisons they use and reminds his interviewers that the poisons may act within a quarter-hour
on small game only. We also watch the gruel they can make from the sago palm, which also supplies the shafts for their arrows.
In a curiously ambiguous sequence, we see a huge tree toppling under its own weight into the bush and are shown the symmetrical series of cuts at the lone tree's base. Later, we are told that these trees have been downed by the Penangs in an effort to block the loggers' roads into the rain
forest. Later still, we hear and see the tractors dislodge these simple barricades. One good hardwood tree can mean as much as $20,000 to the loggers, and at their current rate they will destroy the rain forest in 20 years, a forest that is over a hundred million years old.
The portions of the film dealing with this issue are fairly routine; we are shown the denuding of the forest, and the process by which the felled trees are converted into cut lumber for the needs of primarily Japanese customers, who prefer wood to cardboard for food packaging and disposable
wooden chopsticks, according to environmentalists. The film shifts back and forth from Penang tribesmen in ceremonial gear and a Malaysian spokesman who is also a logging industry representative. In one sequence a series of towering apartment blocks form a backdrop to a small lake of felled trees
awaiting the buzzsaw. The final scene is of a Penang family, whom we have seen at their daily chores in the jungle clearing, disappearing into the green lushness of the rain forest.
There probably could be no better contrast than that of the loggers' improvidence and the Penang's austerity, who don't even have the luxury of keeping a dog who cannot hunt. The rain forest is stunningly photographed by Roed, the sunlight filtered by thickly luxuriant trees and foliage. (He even
situates a camera on the river bank so we can see his initial approach from the jungle's viewpoint.) The careful integration of visuals and screenplay is evident throughout, a tribute to Roed's collaboration with his fellow scriptwriters, who also share directing credit.
Oddly, there is no mention of any problems for Manser with local diseases or his relations, if any, with women, and he does appear to be simply a lone hunter, despite the family group that surrounds him. Since Manser does not discuss in any detail the reasons for his living in Borneo, he becomes
the journalistic "hook" about which to discuss the environmental aspects of the loggers' work. His presence among the Penangs has focussed attention on their plight, and we see him and his friends reading an extensive story about him in a newspaper. The beauty of the rain forest is almost
deceptive; the corrosive effects of heat and humidity seem minor, and a comment on other tribes who are known as headhunters is brief. (Adult situations.)
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