Animation in the Middle Kingdom
Monkey makes a, um, monkey out of himself in Princess Iron Fan
Noel Vera · August 18, 2003 | When you say Asian animation, the tendency is to look solely towards Japan, and lately, Korea—which is wrong, or at the very least, simplistic. Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan's Princess Iron Fan (1941), a seminal work in Chinese animation, is by some accounts the third animated feature ever made, after Disney's Snow White and the Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels (1939). By others, it's actually the fifth, after Quirino Cristiani's El Apostol (1917) and Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1925). It's about one of the thousand-and-one adventures of the legendary Monkey King, as he escorts a Buddhist priest over mountains and into the West. In this particular episode (call them the earliest ever version of the mini-series), Monkey and his companions face the Mountain of Flames; the only solution is to obtain a fan made of iron from a fairy princess, and use it to blow the flames out. Problem is, the fairy princess remembers Monkey, and is furious at him for past injustices...

Princess Iron Fan is an enormously influential film—it provoked the Japanese military to create their own first-ever animated feature, Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors (1945), and inspired a sixteen-year-old Japanese named Ozamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) to take up an animator's pen. It was made under impossibly adverse conditions—in Shanghai while the city was surrounded by Japanese forces, with the animators both constantly short of food and working desperately to solve problems they have never even imagined (to create certain human movements, for example, they resorted to rotoscoping). The film even has its hidden political meaning, with Monkey roundly defeated by the Princess and her Buffalo King (who represents Japan); only when he unites with his fellow companions, Sandy and Piggy, does he defeat king and princess. I found myself admiring it intensely, and if its slapstick doesn't have the precision of the Fleischer cartoons, if its overall storytelling doesn't evoke the kind of enchantment that Reiniger's Prince Achmed does, that's probably more a failure of my own personal taste than the film's, I think.

China didn't stop there; its animation abilities improved by leaps and bounds. Iron Fan's style, though recognizably Chinese, borrowed heavily from Disney and the Fleischers; Te Wei's 20-minute Where is Mama? (1960), about a group of tadpoles searching for their mother, is inspired by the watercolor paintings of Qi Baishi. The brushstroke animation is lovely—I kept marveling at the delicately curved tips of a crab's claws and legs—and the creatures' motions are precisely observed. These aren't the typical song-and-dance Disney animals, you feel, but actual reptiles and insects, caught in their natural habitat and acting their most natural behavior... yet at the same time giving eloquent performances that serve the story. I mean, when the tadpoles approach the crab she acts exactly like a crab, but one annoyed at being bothered—you see it in the wary stance she takes while facing the tadpoles, the way she raises her claws defensively. Later when she hears a cry for help, the crab agitates in a zigzag line up and down the beach: what should she do? What on earth should she do? Te Wei's Feeling from Mountain and Water (1988) is an even more exquisite short, a twenty-minute, totally wordless tale of a young boy who learns to play music from an old man. As elegantly paced as recited poetry, with landscapes that drown you in their beauty, the film is a transcendental work of art.

And it's not just mainland China—one example of Taiwanese animation, Wang Shaudi's Grandma and her Ghosts (1988), is steeped in Chinese mythology, about a young boy forced to stay over with his grandmother, who happens to keep a collection of ghosts sealed in jars in her house. It's an interesting premise, and has something to say about Chinese attitudes towards life and the afterlife, but its apparently limited budget forces the animation to be not much more sophisticated than what you see in Rugrats cartoons—big-eyed cartoon characters using overarticulated gestures in an unsatisfyingly cute manner.

Then there's the feature animation from Hong Kong, Toe Yuen's My Life as McDull, based on a comic strip by Brian Tse and Alice Mak. Perhaps it's the bigger budget that allows for an impressive variety of animation techniques—everything from simple line drawings to full-blown CGI effects—or perhaps it's the filmmakers' uniquely rueful sensibilities, but McDull is a delight on a level Grandma never quite achieves. The hero's mother prays that he be intelligent and handsome, then on second thought simply prays that he be lucky; she originally names him Mcnificent, then on second thought (unwilling to tempt the Fates with so arrogant a moniker) decides on the humbler McDull.

The rest of the story and much of its humor takes its cue from this wishy-washy, cover-all-bases line of thinking—McDull is charming without being overly cute, funny without losing its essential core of honesty, and, in the end, movingly, hilariously sad. It touches on the seemingly fundamental trauma found in practically all Chinese men—their love-hate relationship with their supercompetent, all-powerful mothers; it shows in painfully laughable detail the over-reverence Chinese give vanished traditions (in this case, the ancient sport of "bun-snatching"); it even delivers a scathingly spot-on satire on Chinese cooking recipes. And it arrives at a conclusion worthy of that great neurotic, Philip Roth (Jews and Chinese, come to think of it, have plenty in common): McDull as an adult, standing on a beach and wondering what the moral of his story is. A wonderful film.
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