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Friday, Aug. 4, 2006

Hunting for some reality

"The Last Trapper" (titled "Karyudo to Inu, Saigo no Tabi" in Japan) is a fictional documentary: The setting is real-life and instead of actors, actual people tell the story. Yet there's a script, every scene was rehearsed, the director gives directions and nothing happens in the story that hasn't been planned out. Does it work?

The Last Trapper Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Norman Winther and his canine costars in the film "The Last Trapper" (C) KARYUDO TO INU, SAIGO NO TABI

Director: Nicolas Vanier
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Opens Aug. 12, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Made by French mountaineer/filmmaker Nicolas Vanier, the answer to that is, yes -- as far as ambience and some exquisite framing/lensing work done in the Canadian Rockies where the movie is set. If you view this as motion-picture treatment of a National Geographic spread, then Vanier's package should yield tremendous satisfaction. If not, the film could be a letdown.

The biggest thing wrong with it is the centerpiece: A hunter and fur trapper named Norman Winther. A grizzled, handsome man of 50-odd, Norman looks like he materialized from the pages of a Jack London novel and moves with a sinewy, animal grace in his environment. He builds cabins with his bare hands, lays out his traps with his bare hands, tans leather, takes care of his livestock and owns not one modern gadget, not even a telephone. Norman's way of life had become obsolete decades ago but he chooses to pursue it: "Life is pure and simple this way." This statement alone should draw enormous admiration if not genuine affection, but try as one might it's hard to like Norman, which puts a dent in the viewing experience. Norman's dogs are great. His horses are wonderful. The mountains are splendid. When the lens focuses on Norman however, that lovin' feeling is lost.

Director Vanier met Norman while the former was trekking in the Canadian Rockies. Vanier, himself an avid explorer, mountaineer and athlete was so impressed by Norman and his lifestyle that he decided to make a tribute film. But it feels like he gave the trapper all the wrong lines to say. Norman is extremely self-congratulatory, talking repeatedly and oh-so-sincerely about how he lives in "complete harmony with nature" and how the lumber companies and developers are destroying the land. On the other hand when Norman apologizes to the animals he traps and kills (a custom once practiced by native Americans and Canadians) his tone comes off as auto-pilot. He's also patronizing to his dogs, as if their sole raison d'etre was to aid, serve and worship him. Again and again, he risks their lives for his own objective (trapping, killing) and takes chances despite warnings from fellow trappers who traded in their dog sleds for snow mobiles a long time ago.

Norman himself is aware that his days are numbered as the last, real trapper working in Canada, and he talks about packing it all in and moving to town. Still, he can't give it up partly because this is what he does best, and also because he believes that trained dogs are better and far more reliable than machines.

All the while, he frets about missing out on the best part of "trapping season" that's growing leaner by the year due to the plundering of the forests by the evil developers.

Norman's worries are, of course, justified, but his tone lends his livelihood a loftiness it doesn't really deserve. His girlfriend/partner of 15-years called Nebraska (played by his real-life girlfriend May Loo -- for some reason, she's the only one in the cast who goes by a different name) has a much better grip on reality. When she asks him what the day's catch was and he replies "beaver," she tosses off plaintively: "Hmm. Well, beaver doesn't pay much." Every time he comes back from a hunting expedition, the first thing she says is "So?" instead of more conventional salutations. And when he goes into town to sell his furs she sends him off with: "Don't you go drinking in Dawson!"

This isn't to say that Nebraska is a nag or unattractive in any way; as it is she's the best thing happening in the movie, human-wise. You suspect the director let her speak in her own voice, since her speech is spontaneous and swift and always to the point, devoid of mawkishness or sentiment. There's also the slightest hint of contempt lurking beneath her words. It must feel strange to see her man, after 15 years of cohabitation in the Canadian bush, wax eloquent on the wonders of nature and the downside of forest development. Her astute understanding of the land, of animals and of Norman himself all have the no-nonsense ring of truth that's absent from Norman's monologues. That the mountain forests are being destroyed by powerful, white men's corporations must seem like a fact of life to Nebraska, which is probably why she never joins Norman in his hand-wringing. This is her way of life (she works just as hard as Norman), the land is where she belongs and she sees no reason to either sanctify or explain her presence.

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