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Director: Wan Gu-chan
Release Date: January 1, 1941
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Princess Iron Fan © Wan BrothChina owes its animation industry to the Wan brothers, four brothers (including a pair of twins) from Shanghai who started animating in 1923.

The Wans made their first film, ‘Uproar in an Art Studio’ in 1926, which mixed animation with live action, like Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series. They also could boast making the first Chinese sound cartoon, ‘The Camel’s Dance’ (1935). But when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in August 1937 their studio was destroyed, and they temporarily went to Wuhan to work on patriotic war films, until that city fell, too, in 1938.

Luckily, in 1939 the twins Wan Lai-ming and Wan Gu-chan were invited by the Xinhua United Film Company to work once again in Shanghai. There the brothers saw Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and decided to make a feature film of their own. The Xinhua company was seated in the concession of Vichy France, which allowed for some freedom, which the Wans clearly used in their film.

Made by 237 artists in the course of sixteen months, the result was ‘Princess Iron Fan’ (or ‘The Princess with the Iron Fan’, 1941), China’s very first feature film. This film takes its inspiration from the very popular 16th century novel ‘Journey to the West’, and tells about the 7th century monk Xuanzang (or Tang Seng as he’s transcribed in the DVD), who really existed, and who was famous for travelling all the way to India to learn about Buddhism, and take important scriptures back to China with him. In the novel Xuanzang has become a legendary figure, travelling with his disciples, the monkey king Sun Wukong, a pig monk called Zhu Bajie, and a man called Sha Wujiing, who’s portrayed as having a stutter in the movie.

The movie tells about an episode in which Xuanzang is confronted by a flaming mountain, which he cannot cross. The local villagers then tell him about a princess who has an iron fan, which can make the fire go disappear. Xuanzang then sends his disciples to the princess to borrow the fan, which turns out to be no easy feat.

The film’s story is a delight: it’s full of surprising plot twists, strange magic, and unexpected metamorphoses. If it’s anything faithful to the novel, it becomes clear why it has become so popular. The film’s moral is that only together one can beat defeat. Indeed, the Wan brothers have given the film a long motto in the beginning of the movie:

This film was made for the purpose of training the hearts and minds of children. The story is pure, untainted fantasy. Fiery mountain blocking the path of Tang Seng’s company is a metaphor for the difficulties in life. In order to overcome them, one must keep faith. Everybody must work together in order to obtain the palm leaf fan and put out the flames.“.

This must have rung very true in war-plagued China, which suffered heavily from the brutal Japanese invasion.

Despite the difficulties of war, the film can also boost a rich orchestral soundtrack, beautiful, poetic background art, and some spectacular effect animation of smoke and flames. The body of the animation, however, is not that good. Although prompted by the Disney feature, there’s practically no Disney influence visible. Instead, the Wan brothers made a heavy use of rotoscope, which accounts for fluid, but all too often excessive movement and weird camera movements. The rotoscope is juxtaposed to disappointingly primitive animation, sometimes no better than say the work of the Van Beuren studio ca. 1930-1932. Most of the animation looks very stiff and mechanical, and designs are often very unstable, varying from one scene to the next. Moreover, there’s dialogue, but absolutely no lip-synch, and the staging at times is very odd, making the action sometimes hard to read.

Strangely, the film features two songs, which are accompanied by a bouncing ball, inviting the audience to sing along. I assume that these songs were already familiar to the audiences, otherwise these interludes are quite incomprehensible additions.

Nevertheless, the story is well told, and builds up to a spectacular finale, in which the disciples and the villagers fight a giant bull. The most bizarre scenes, however, are the pig monk rolling up a dragon as if it were a carpet, and the monkey king walking through the princess’s intestines, in the shape of a beetle. It’s images like these that make the film a worthwhile watch, and if ‘Princess Iron Fan’ may not be an all-time classic (it’s too primitive for that), the movie is an admirable effort, coming from a war-beaten country.

Moreover, the film was a huge influence on Soviet animation, and even on the Japanese animation industry, which made its very own first animated feature in 1945. Yet, Wan Lai-ming would top himself with another feature film based on ‘Journey to the West’ called ‘Havoc in Heaven’ (1964), which without doubt still is a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Princess Iron Fan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Princess Iron Fan’ is available on a Cinema Epoch DVD

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Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Feeling of Mountain and Water © Te WeiAfter a hiatus of 25 years, China’s pioneering star animator Te Wei returns with this powerful and serene film, which is probably the most Chinese film ever made.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’* tells about an old master passing of the Guqin, a Chinese zither, and most revered of all Chinese classical instruments. Feeling his time has come, the old master passes his art on to a musical boyish fisherman. In the end we watch the boy playing an ode to his master and to nature on the guqin, which is now his.

The designs of this short are extremely beautiful, the watercolor backgrounds are on the verge of the abstract, and the animation is delicate and sophisticated. The film knows no dialogue, and much of the story is more suggested than shown.

Te Wei must have felt close to the film’s subject, as he himself was already in his seventies when he made this. Meanwhile, a younger gang of Chinese animators had taken inspiration from his films from the 1960s in what must have been a Chinese animation renaissance since the devastation of the cultural revolution.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ is a very beautiful and meditative film on nature, music and life, and to me the masterpiece of Chinese animation.

Watch ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: impression de montagne et d’eau

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1985
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Straw Man © Hu Jinqing‘The Straw Man’* is yet another example of China’s typical preoccupation with nature, water and fishermen.

Based on an ancient proverb (which one could translate into ‘it’s dogged as does it’), this film tells about a fisherman who is disturbed by two pelicans and who disguises himself as a scarecrow to catch the two birds.

The cut-out animation of the birds is very naturalistic, yet the backgrounds, based on paintings from the Tang dynasty, are are very graphical. Unfortunately, compared to the stunning animation of the animals, the animation of the fisherman is very crude and primitive, and the film suffers a little from a slow pace and all too present music.

Watch ‘The Straw Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Straw Man’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘l’épouvantail’

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Snipe and the Clam © Hu Jinqing‘The Snipe and the Clam’*  is one of many Chinese films based on ancient tales.

And like many other Chines films it has a look based on ancient Chinese paintings, it’s set in nature, and it deals with a fisherman.

In this film, a fisherman, a kingfisher and a snipe try to open a giant clam. When the snipe gets stuck, it’s the fisherman who wins the day. The film is based on an ancient Chinese proverb, which can be translated into “two dogs fight for a bone, and a third one runs away with it”.

In ”The Snipe and the Clam’ Hu Jinqing excels in gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, beautiful designs, great silent acting and remarkably naturalistic cut out-animation of the animals. In comparison, the animation of the fisherman is simple and rather crude. The film unfolds at an unhurried, almost meditative speed, which can make it difficult to enjoy.

Watch ‘The Snipe and the Clam’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Snipe and the Clam’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known as ‘Snipe-Clam Grapple’, and by its French title: ‘l’aigrette et j’huitre’

Director: Zhou Keqin & Ah Da
Release Date: 1981
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Monkeys Fish The Moon © Keqin Zhou‘Monkeys Fish the Moon’* tells about a troupe of monkeys who try to catch the moon.

When they finally succeed to catch its reflection in a bowl, they drop it, only to discover that the moon still is in the sky.

‘The Monkeys who tried to catch the moon’ is, like many other Chinese films, based on an ancient fable. And, like many others it uses silent acting to tell its story. Nevertheless, the film is also a little atypical. Its elegant designs are not inspired by ancient painting, but more akin to Lotte Reiniger’s films. Moreover, the movements are not really naturalistic and the film doesn’t use Chinese music. Instead we have a lush and colorful forest world accompanied by rich film music. The cut-out models of the monkeys are soft and subtle in design, and there’s a striking use of light.

The result is one of the most beautiful Chinese animation films ever made.

Watch ‘Monkeys Fish the Moon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Monkeys Fish the Moon’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘les singes qui veulent attraper la lune’

Director: Ah Da
Release Date: 1980
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Three Monks © Ah DaIn ‘Three Monks’* Ah Da retells an ancient Chinese proverb: one monk can carry two buckets of water, two can carry one, but three…

Three monks visit a house on a hill top to meditate and to worship Buddha. Unfortunately, they have to fetch their water in the lake below. Only after a fire they are willing to cooperate in this.

The film uses clear and simple designs and very elementary backgrounds. Its storytelling is very lean, and uses no dialogue. Unfortunately, like many other Chinese animation films, it also suffers from slowness. Ah Da clearly takes his time, telling his story on a leisurely speed. The result is a meditative film, the comedy notwithstanding.

Watch ‘Three Monks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Three Monks’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘Les trois moines’

Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1960
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Where is Mama © Te Wei‘Where is Mama’* is a charming little film in which we watch a school tadpoles seeking their mother.

They mistake two shrimps, a goldfish, a crab, a turtle and a catfish for their mother, before their real mother finds them.

Told by a voice-over, ‘Where is Mama’ is a genuinely Chinese film: it is based on an ancient Chinese fable, it is typically preoccupied with nature and water, its watercolor and ink style is based on classic Chinese painters (most obviously Qi Baishi), and it is set to a serene and leisurely speed.

The result is a film that is a bit slow, but poetic in feel and strikingly beautiful. The short looks timelessly Chinese, but at the time of its release the film’s style was completely new and daring within the Chinese animation film world. However, it would take ca. twenty years before its influence became clear, because five years after the making of this cartoon the Shanghai Animation Studio was shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution, and many of its employees were sent to re-education camps in the countryside. Only in the late seventies it would be up and running again. In the following decade ‘Where is Mama’ would be an inspiration to many Chinese animators, who would reuse several of this film’s key elements. In that decade, too, Te Wei made his own masterpiece, ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water‘ (1988).

Watch ‘Where is Mama’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Where is Mama’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film probably is best known by its French title: ‘Les têtards à la recherche de leur maman’

 

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