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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘China Run’: Discovering a Nation, the Self

Times Staff Writer

“China Run” (at the Westside Pavilion) is not what you might expect of a documentary about an American making a 53-day, 2,125-mile run across China. It’s neither dry travelogue nor brotherhood-of-man propaganda, thanks to the engaging personality of long-distance runner Stan Cottrell and the relaxed, open way in which he allows film maker Mickey Grant to present him.

What makes “China Run” work so well is that Cottrell persuades us he’s never performing for the camera--that his perceptions of the country and its people, as well as of himself, evolve in the course of the run. More than anything else, Stan Cottrell seems to be in the process of discovering himself.

Unlike so many athletes, Cottrell is not a man of few words--and he speaks with an irresistible hillbilly twang that is thicker than Dolly Parton’s. He’s given to such exclamations as “Wooeee! Lordy! It’s a long way from Kentucky!” When a deceptively frail-looking farmer shoulders a heavy load with far more ease than Cottrell himself can muster, he puts his hand on the man’s shoulder and calls him “One stout dude!”

Cottrell, who is a blond, boyish-looking 41, had already made long-distance runs in many other parts of the world when he set his heart on China. It took took four years of negotiations to fulfill his wish.

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Starting out his Great Friendship Run at the Great Wall, northwest of Beijing, Cottrell jogs through city and countryside, past temples and huts, through sunshine and bitter cold, choosing paths through well-tilled fields whenever he can to avoid the flinty main roads. (Unfortunately, none of the places, even major cities, which he passes through are identified.) Cottrell tells us he spent so much time getting permission to make the run that he didn’t have time to get in shape, and in time he--and we--begin to wonder if he’ll actually make it. (For one thing, he started out the run without a full complement of American investors.)

Early on we hear Grant say he doesn’t want to make a boring movie, and he doesn’t. We do see China through Cottrell’s eyes. Cottrell is as turned off by piles and piles of caged live snakes at a street market as he is by sides of beef being sold in the open air, but he’s delighted by the hearty spiel of a peddler hawking rat poison. (Cottrell is accompanied always by interpreters, the most prominent of whom is a pretty woman he calls Grace.)

As he gets deeper and deeper into the countryside he finds himself identifying with the farmers, speculating that he may understand them better than city bureaucrats. When he approaches, in a state of severe fatigue, a stretch of land that reminds him of his own childhood home in the backwoods of Kentucky, he finally breaks down completely, wracked by sobs. At this moment he confesses to a comforting Grace that he now realizes the true reason he’s driven to making his phenomenal runs is to make the hard-driving father who never believed he would amount to anything at last proud of him. However, that father, a figure of both love and hatred, has been dead for five years.

If Cottrell bares his soul--and he also allows himself to be seen in a fit of temper and fed up with the ever-intrusive camera--he and Grant also do not present a China without warts: a country that is undergoing profound changes. By the time Cottrell ends his run in Canton he is full of respect for the common man but wary of all the seemingly close friendships he’s formed along the way. He believes in their sincerity and is touched by them, yet feels they could all blow away in a change of “political winds.”

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“China Run” (Times-rated Family) offers a rich view of the bustling daily life of all kinds of ordinary Chinese, but it is finally even more rewarding as a portrait of Stan Cottrell, a good ole boy who proves to be as canny as he is compassionate.


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