originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/646653...
Once again: 嘿朋友动画的晚上正在上映电影！
Tonight we’re going to return to the subject of Chinese animation, aka dònghuà! Last time we went here, I went on a pretty long tangent researching the history of Chinese animation; so head to that post if you’d like to read about its origins with animators like the Wan brothers drawing frames under Japanese occupation; the post-war stylistic flourishing at Shanghai Animation Film Studio during the early Mao years, such as Te Wei’s beautiful ink-wash films; the sudden about-face during the Cultural Revolution when the CCP decided it would rather send those animators to the countryside and animation should only be used for propaganda films; the doldrums following Mao’s death, after the Shanghai Animation generation died out, and the remaining studios provided cheap outsourcing for foreign studios; and now the rapid, startlingly impressive revival of anime-influenced films in the last few years.
That revival is coming in part at the hands of studios like Wolf Smoke, Haoliners, and Nice Boat, who have been bringing some pretty amazing traditional animation in the last few years. Unfortunately, finding out anything about that animation - the story of its production, the hopes of its creators, and indeed idiomatic, well-edited subtitles - tends to be quite difficult! You have to make do with very barebones English-language articles which repeat the same information, and hope you’re not too misled by machine translation of the wiki articles.
Even so, there’s enough groups working on it that I have been able to put together another program of donghua, mostly from the last few years! The main thing we’re going to be checking out is Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世 Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì, literally Birth of the Demon Child Nezha), a CG-animated action/comedy film directed by ‘Jiaozi’ (a pseud that translates to ‘dumplings’, real name Yang Yu) at Chengdu Coco Cartoon (可可豆动画). Jiaozi was a self-taught animator, diverging from the medicine track to teach himself 3D animation.
He did well early on with a short film ’See Through’ (打，打个大西瓜 lit. Hit, Hit the Big Watermelon), a short film about a pointless war over a tiny island and two pilots caught up in the midst of it, which does some fascinating things with pacing and physical comedy, using gesture and symbolism to tell a story without dialogue! The film earned a ton of awards, and rightly so, it’s pretty outstanding work. But for a while, it seems he could only work on outsourced animation.
This situation changed after China saw the release of the major collaboration project Monkey King: Hero Is Back (西游记之大圣归来 Xīyóu jì zhī dà shèng guīlái, lit. Journey to the West: The Return of the Great Sage), which made a fuckton of money and showed the media companies there was actually quite a lot of profit to be made in domestic 3D animation. Yi Qiao, CEO of anime distributor Colorroom Pictures, smelled money - and he flew out to meet Jiaozi in person. Qiao turned out to be right in his bet, because after a five year production, Ne Zha ended up setting records as the second-highest grossing film in China.
Like the upcoming sequel in the same universe, Ne Zha is a modern riff on part of the 16th-Century novel Investiture of the Gods (封神演義 Fēngshén Yǎnyì), a Ming-dynasty fantasy imagining of events thousands of years prior when Ji Fa overthrew the Shang Dynasty and founded the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 BC. Which means we may find some of the characters and events a little opaque, but part of the director’s intent is indeed to
As we saw last time, the popularity of Nezha as a mythological figure owes a lot to a previous animated film, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, one of the last major projects of Shanghai Animation Film Studios following Mao’s death; last time I showed only segments of that film but this time I think I might play us the whole thing for a comparison of two different eras!
The other pillar of tonight’s Animation Night is the work of Nice Boat Animation (好传动画 Hǎo Chuán Dònghuà). Last time we watched a trailer for their upcoming historical drama film Shuo Feng - Po Zhen Zi, which has supposedly been released in China last year; I can’t get my hands on that film, but they’ve been doing a lot of other incredibly impressive work before that.
While there’s not much info to be had in English, Nice Boat seem to be very small, and rather defiantly ‘indie’ (they released Dahufa (2017) with a mocking note thanking those who ‘brought them difficulties’ with getting the film approved). But they absolutely have the talent to back it up, with their fight choreography in series like Fog Hill of Five Elements (雾山五行 Wu Shan Wu Xing) (2020) giving the most sakuga-rich anime a serious run for its money. Strong enough - at least in my book! - to make up for some very confusing plotting and relatively limited character animation outside the delicious fight scenes.
So, on that front: Fog Hill of Five Elements (Wu Shan Wu Xing) (2020) features a small township whose apothecary has secretly wronged a group of bird demons, and now face those demons’ revenge - but a wandering immortal with elemental powers happens to get caught in the middle of the conflict.
Alongside that, there’s Nice Boat’s feature film Dahufa (大护法) (2017) - a gorgeously stylised film about a warrior attempting to rescue his prince from a society run by a dystopian cult. Funded intermittently by tools like Kickstarter, the film proved rather controversial on its release due to both its graphic violence (including intense scenes of executions by firing squad) and the ready political readings as critical of the CCP (and though the director speaks more of capitalist alienation, that’s not exactly disconnected!) Apparently the Communist Youth League denounced the film on this basis, which predictably caused it to get a lot more attention and views.
I don’t really know the ins and outs of modern Chinese film censorship, but a lot of articles comment on the blurry lines of what is acceptable - and like, speculatively, this may well be part of the reason why the vast majority of animation I can find has a mythological rather than contemporary setting! But a film like Dahufa seems a lot more on the nose, bringing even in the trailer some incredible surreal imagery and a fantastic visual sense that I can’t wait to see in context.
We’ll see more from Nice Boat pretty soon, with work on this season’s post-apocalyptic robot anime ‘Eden’ for Netflix. Hope it turns out to be good.
Time permitting, I would also like to show some more of the work of Wolf Smoke - mostly very short films and trailers, I don’t have anything the length of Valley of White Birds, but they have an impressive range of shorter films in a variety of tones (ok, admittedly mostly action! but it’s good shit!)
There’s some really tasty stuff going on in the world of donghua at the moment, and I would love for it to get better known in English. Animation Night 46 is going to start at 7pm UK time over at the usual place, twitch.tv/canmom - let’s see if I can draw some sort of title card in the last half an hour!