This Swedish-produced documentary about China’s Hanyuan valley is nominally another dispatch from the eco-apocalypse file, so the final harmonious impression it leaves behind suggests it hasn’t done its job properly. Located in Sichuan province, the valley is a place where bees are on the verge of extinction, the consequences of which we see in the opening sequence of fruit farmer Cao and his wife hand-pollinating flowers on their trees.
They are one of three families in this agricultural triptych: there is also maize-cropper Ye, who is thinking of branching out into fruit in order to pay for a new house, and beekeeper Zhang, who leaves her grandparents to look after her young daughter so she and her husband can take refuge in the far-flung part of the valley where insects still thrive. As Cao testifies, the problem is modern pesticides, which caused fruit harvests to fail shortly after they started being used in the mid-1960s.
Is there a growing awareness of the problem? Do bee friendly chemicals exist? Is the frankly frightening amount of cigarette smoking in the fields here what is actually driving away the insects? The incurious Earth: Muted doesn’t seem interested in prising open the wider context; it rests wholly on extended sequences of the farmers at work unsheathing corn cobs or collecting pollen, with halting commentary superimposed. The film touches on the issues: Cao alludes to informing the Chinese authorities about pesticides’ harmful effects, while Ye’s father is adamant they can be safely used without harming the bees. But there is no real inquiry.
What is apparent are the economic pressures that are driving the farmers en masse into the arms of the agro-industrial complex. Everyone here, team pesticide or not, is looking to improve their prospects to ensure a better life for the next generation. But instead of pushing the film into defining what the ecological cost of this may be, the film-makers – torn between a proper investigative exposé and a less judgmental bucolic portrait – placidly position this as just part of the timeless cycle of rural struggle. It might be soothing to watch, but that seems like the wrong take away.