A polar bear’s life

Boy visits Kut.| Photo courtesy of Julia Kwan.

Filmmaker, Julia Kwan explores themes of aging and the abandonment of the elderly in her first animation film, The Zoo.

Animated by Jesse Cote at Jester Coyote and co-produced by the National Film Board (NFB) and Telus, The Zoo takes us on a journey through the story of Kut, a polar bear cub who finds himself living in a confined, cemented pit at a zoo and a young Chinese boy named Jun, who visits him from their youth, well into their old age.

SPARK will be showing The Zoo Oct. 27 at the Vancity Theatre.


Family picture with Kut.| Photo courtesy of Julia Kwan.

Dedicated to her dad, the film, written and directed by Kwan raises the question of how much we value seniors in our society, she says.

In The Zoo, we see both Kut and Jun age together until they are both in their twilight years.

The concept of The Zoo came from Kwan’s real life experiences from visiting Tuk, the real bear who once lived at Vancouver’s Stanley Park Zoo and was left there to wait out his life after it closed because he was too old to be moved and tie into her experience with taking care of her aging parents.

“Seeing the ravages of time and disease on a loved one is heartbreaking,” says Kwan.

Kwan also drew her inspiration for The Zoo from her 2014 documentary Everything Will Be, which explored the feelings of abandonment and loss through lives of Chinese seniors living in Vancouver’s Chinatown, says Kwan.

Kut, much like the real Tuk, is left to live out the rest of his life in an abandoned zoo after it has closed and Jun is seen slowly walking up the stairs into his cramped apartment in Chinatown with no one by his side.

Show don’t tell

The Zoo is Kwan’s first film without dialogue.

“It was a challenge for me, I didn’t hear a voice for the bear, I wanted the emotions to play out in action, through facial expressions or circumstances of story,” says Kwan.

Although not an animator herself, Kwan says The Zoo lends itself to animation and wanting to convey Kut’s emotions without dialogue or voiceover meant that she had some research to do.

Kwan was also faced with showing how her two characters aged through the film without the use of dialogue.

She credits her animator Cote, for coming up with the concept of showing the two characters at different stages in life through a series of photographs.

Kwan says the details Cote put into a senior Jun, reminded her of her dad.

“I see my dad’s physicality in that old man especially in the crooked back,” she says.

Finding her voice

For Kwan, visiting the Stanley Park Zoo was a magical experience for her as a child, she says.

“There was no way my parents could afford to take us on a safari, it was the only chance I had as a child to be up close to animals, it fuelled my imagination,” she says.

Kwan’s parents immigrated to Vancouver from China.

“I was such a shy kid that I didn’t really have a voice and I found my voice through my writing,” says Kwan.

Her mother, a school teacher and her father a manager/bus boy at a restaurant, Kwan says no one in her family ever pursued the arts.

Kwan’s love for film would lead her into a scriptwriting and when she told her mom she was pursuing writing, she got a phone call from her sister saying “you know, mom thinks you’re studying calligraphy.”

On her first animation film, Kwan says “it’s exciting, because I want to try different things, challenge myself as a filmmaker.”