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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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Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date:
 July 23, 1932
Rating: ★★
Review:

Chinese Jinks © Van Beuren‘Chinese Jinks’ tells of a Western sailor, who falls in love with a Chinese girl in an extremely stereotyped China. The girl is forced to marry a rich mandarin, but the sailor rescues her and flees with her on a dragon ship.

‘Chinese Jinks’ contains some elements that seem to be borrowed from Walt Disney’s ‘The China Plate‘ (1931), but Van Beuren’s short never reaches the Silly Symphony’s elegance. The cartoon suffers from erratic animation, sloppy timing, strange interludes and throwaway scenes, like the scene of four Chinese animals ironing and singing, which is reused in its entirety from ‘Laundry Blues‘ (1930).

Watch ‘Chinese Jinks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Chinese Jinks’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Lotte Reiniger
Release Date: 1928
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Der scheintote Chinese © Lotte Reiniger‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is a short film by Lotte Reiniger, made in the same vein as her stunning feature film ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’ from 1926. Unlike her feature, this isn’t a romantic film, however, but a comical one, exploiting some surprisingly dark humor.

It starts when a couple makes fun with Ping Pong, the emperor’s favorite humpback. Unfortunately he chokes on a fishbone, leaving the couple believe he’s dead. They try to get rid of him, and so does every other citizen who finds the body on his doorstep. Finally a drunk is caught and sentenced to death for the brutal murder on Ping Pong. When the innocent drunk is almost hung at the gallows, the other people get remorse, and each pleads guilty in succession. Luckily, at that moment, Ping Pong awakes.

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is an entertaining story, and Reiniger’s designs are as delicate as ever. But the animation is crude and stiff, and her timing rather tiresome. Thus the film fails short to become a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Der scheintote Chinese’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is available on the DVD ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Ahmed’

Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1951
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Yellow Stork © Soyuzmultfilm‘The Yellow Stork’ is a Russian fairy tale film set in China.

The film tells about a flute player, whose music is so vivid, it can bring a drawing of a stork to life. An evil mandarin captures the bird, demanding it to perform for him. But the stork will only dance to the flute player’s music, and when it hears this music, it flies away through the window.

This film, which uses song, seems to celebrate music and freedom and appears to be a pamphlet against oppression, which is remarkable for a film made under Stalin’s rule. The animation in this short is very good, with beautifully animated humans. The result is one of the more enjoyable Soviet films of the era.

Watch ‘The Yellow Stork’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: May 16, 1931
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Although this cartoon is one of those Silly Symphonies from 1931 using the half dance-routine half story formula, it is one of the most beautiful and most entertaining Silly Symphonies of the era.

The film is inspired by a Western view on a mythical ancient China. The film is without any dialogue and makes effective use of Albert Ketèlbey’s musical piece ‘In a Chinese Temple garden’ to create an oriental atmosphere. It tells a simple story of a little fisherman who saves a girl from drowning, falls in love with her and rescues her from an evil mandarin and a large (Western and fire-breathing) dragon.

After ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ this is the studio’s second take at the human figure. The result is a mixed bag. The heroin’s movements are still cartoony, for example, and she walks with her knees sideways. Even worse, the long-legged China-man has no hint of realism at all. Moreover, the hero’s size is quite inconsistent, suddenly becoming very small when fighting the evil mandarin. On the other hand, the boy and girl are elegantly drawn, especially their hands. The two easily gain the audience’s sympathy and transcend the stereotypes that occupy most of the film.

Together with ‘Mother Goose Melodies’, ‘The China Plate’ is the most elaborate of the early Silly Symphonies. It’s surprisingly fast-paced and full of action. The complete cartoon is one of sheer delight.

Watch ‘The China Plate’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 18
To the previous Silly Symphony: Mother Goose Melodies
To the next Silly Symphony: The Busy Beavers

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