Gunda (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Animal life at farm

Documentary film “Gunda”, which is finally released in South Korean theaters in this week, gives us a seemingly plain but ultimately extraordinary look into animal life at farm. Mainly revolving around one particular sow and her piglets, the documentary has a number of visually stunning moments to engage and then impress you, and the overall result is simply mesmerizing to say the least.

During the opening scene, the documentary, which is incidentally shot in crisp black and white film, gradually intrigues us as the camera patiently stares at the opening of that sow’s residence from its static position. At first, the sow seems to be sleeping alone in her place, but then we come to notice some small movements inside her place, and then we eventually come to see a bunch of little piglets born from her. Like any other young animals, these piglets are usually driven by their constant hunger, and we soon come to observe them voraciously and mindlessly sucking their mother’s tits.

As watching how closely the camera stays around the sow and her piglets, I naturally wondered how the hell director Viktor Kossakovsky, who also serves as the co-editor/co-cinematographer of his documentary, and his crew members could generate such a considerable amount of verisimilitude on the screen. I am sure that they prepared and then shot a lot as steadily hovering around the sow and her piglets, but many of key moments in the documentary are done so smoothly and precisely on the whole that I became all the more curious about the skills and efforts put into these remarkable moments.

Anyway, Kossakovsky and his crew did a commendable job of immersing us into the daily life of their animal subjects without anthropomorphizing them at all. Although those piglets in the documentary may look a bit cute and fragile to us at first, they are far less amiable than that little pig in “Babe” (1995) as often following their basic animal instincts, and this unsavory aspect of theirs is quite apparent especially when they fiercely competing for their mother’s milk. In case of their mother, she may have some motherly instincts as expected, but she usually does not seem to care that much about her piglets, and you may wince for what she does to one of her piglets at one point early in the documentary.

During the two interludes where it pays some attention to some other animals in the farm, the documentary generates more curiosity and fascination for us. In the first interlude, the camera initially looks at a bunch of chickens getting out of their wooden container one by one, and we are amazed again as noticing how closely the camera watches these chickens without much distraction. Like the sow and her piglets, the chickens are somehow not aware of the camera that much, and we become more aware of the environment surrounding them as the camera stays as low as the feet of the chickens.

One particular rooster happens to draw more attention from us due to his rather shabby appearance, and, to our little amazement, it turns out to have a considerable physical disability which does not seem to bother him at all. During the one memorable scene where he has to cross over a little lug, all he has to do is trying a bit harder than other chickens, and that surely brings some amusement for us.

In case of the other interlude, the camera initially beholds a bunch of cattle coming out of a barn, and then it comes to focus more on two particular cows. Although they look merely plain without anything special to notice, we come to reflect more on the main purpose of their and other cows’ existence, but their minds are probably focusing on eating and living as usual, and I am now reminded of what W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

When the documentary later goes back to the sow and the piglets, the piglets grow up a lot, though they are still eager to drink their mother’s milk as before. It is apparent that they become more inconvenient to their mother, and there is a brief amusing scene where she finally comes to have her own little private time as enjoying a bit of mud bath alone.

Although we do not see much of human presence throughout the documentary, the documentary never overlooks how the animals in the documentary are raised and controlled by whoever works in the farm, and this becomes all the more apparent during what can be regarded as the most dramatic moment in the documentary. Regardless of whatever is actually felt by her, the sow seems to be quite baffled and upset as trudging here and there for a long time, and the mood becomes quietly intense as the documentary simply observes her reactions and behaviors without losing any of its calm and objective attitude.

Overall, “Gunda” is a superlative documentary to be admired for its top-notch technical aspects as well as its thoughtful presentation of its unforgettable animal subjects. Without sentimentalizing or objectifying these animals at all, the documentary will leave considerable impression on you, and you may come to muse more on our relationship with livestock animals. Unless there is any groundbreaking industrial revolution, we will continue to depend on what they have provided us for many centuries, and they surely deserve some more respect and consideration, don’t they?

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