Chinese Animation at International Film Festivals: A Report from the 19th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival, South Korea, 2015     

By Daisy Yan Du

In 1956, a Chinese animated short entitled Why Is the Crow Black-Coated (Wuya weishenmo shi hei de , 1955) won an award at the Venice International Children’s Film Festival (Fig 1). As the first Chinese color cel animated film and the first Chinese animated film to win an international prize, this could have been a moment of glory and national pride for all animators in China.  However, the international juries at the film festival mistook the film as a Soviet product, a mistake that in hindsight is understandable given the powerful influence of the Soviet style on Chinese film during the 1950s. Traumatized by the misattribution, Chinese animators realized the importance of asserting national identity in their animated filmmaking and began to develop the so-called “National Style” of Chinese animation, producing The Conceited General (Jiaoao de jiangjun , 1956), Pigsy Eats Watermelon (Zhu Bajie chi xigua , 1958), Uproar in Heaven (Danao tiangong , 1961-1964), Little Tadpoles Look for Mama (Xiao kedou zhao mama , 1960), The Herd Boy’s Flute(Mudi , 1963), and others.[1] These films drew on Chinese folk tales and traditional artistic forms such as paper cutout, ink-painting and Beijing opera, which were able to represent Chinese identity on international stage. They traveled abroad and won numerous prizes at international film festivals, which further reinforced the idea that when it came to animated filmmaking, the more national, the more international, and as a result, the National Style dominated Chinese animated filmmaking for decades.


Fig 1: Why Is the Crow Black-Coated, 1955

As a scholar doing research on the Chinese animation of the socialist decades (1940s-1970s), I am fascinated by the power of international film festivals in shaping national and local animated filmmaking. How could an international film festival change the entire direction of Chinese animated filmmaking? And how could the casual remarks of the international juries be overheard, disseminated, and then brought to China? I have found international film festivals to be mysterious, powerful, and intriguing. When Lee Kyung Hwa (programmer and manager) kindly invited me to serve on an international jury at the 19th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival (SICAF), I knew that it was a precious opportunity for me to observe the issues from an insider’s perspective, and I happily accepted the invitation and attended the full program of SICAF (May 23-28, 2015) in Seoul, South Korea. My first impression was that it was a large-scale official film festival sponsored by the Korean government. During its Opening Ceremony, Park Won-soon, the Mayor of Seoul, dressed as Pororo the Little Penguin, a well-known character in Korean animation, and danced with children on stage (Fig 2). He was quite a surprise for all guests there.


Fig 2: The Mayor of Seoul dressed as Pororo the Little Penguin during the Opening Ceremony of SICAF, May 23, 2015

As China was the honored country of SICAF this year, Chinese animation had a high profile at the festival. To begin with, SICAF arranged a special screening program of the animated films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (1957-present), the only (state-owned) animation studio in socialist China (1949-1976). My task was to select the films (altogether 80-90 minutes) to be screened at the festival. I chose Kitty Goes Fishing(Xiaomao diaoyü , 1952), Pigsy Eats Watermelon (1958), Little Tadpoles Look for Mama (1960), and The Herd Boy’s Flute (1963). The first film represents the beginning of animated filmmaking in early socialist Shanghai, and the other three films were typical examples of the rise of the National Style (paper cutout and ink-painting animations) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which was often regarded as a golden age at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. SICAF arranged two screenings of these films on different days. At the beginning of the first screening at 6pm on May 25, Zheng Hu, Vice President of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, delivered an opening speech to introduce the studio (Fig 3). The program was screened for the second time at 12:20pm on May 27.


Fig 3: The Vice President of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio at SICAF, May 25, 2015

The films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio represent the classic National Style in history of Chinese animation. For many decades, Chinese animators, especially those with a fine arts background, believed that it was only through the assertion of national essence and identity that Chinese animation could win international recognition. This guiding principle worked for many years.  Numerous animated films made by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, including Little Tadpoles Look for Mama (1960), Uproar in Heaven (1961-1964), Three Monks (Sange heshang, 1980), and Feelings of Mountains and Rivers (Shanshui qing , 1988), to name just a few, won awards at prestigious international film festivals such as the Annecy International Film Festival, the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival, and the Cannes International Film Festival (Fig 4 & 5). Even during the more isolationist decades of the socialist era, prior to the rise of the Fifth Generation films that took the international stages during the 1980s, Chinese animated films frequently traveled abroad and won international awards—including in Western capitalist countries.


Fig 4: Little Tadpoles Look for Mama, 1960

Due to the high profile of these classic Chinese animated films at international film festivals, people coined the term “Chinese School of Animation” to refer to them. However, beginning in the late 1980s, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, like other state-owned factories or production units, met unprecedented crises. In order to gain profits and succeed in the free market, the studio had to distance itself from the original artistic approach and began to produce animated films that had more immediate commercial value. As a result, the studio’s animated films gradually disappeared from the official competitions at international film festivals since the late 1980s. Feelings of Mountains and Rivers (1988) was the last splendor of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio on the global stage. After that, few if any animated films produced by the studio won awards at international film festivals.


Fig 5: Uproar in Heaven, 1961-1964

With the decline of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in postsocialist China since the late 1980s, independent animated films and student films became more and more active at international film festivals. It is widely believed that Liu Jian’s hand-drawn animated feature film Piercing 1 (2010) marked the spectacular reappearance of Chinese animation at international film festivals (Fig 6). After its debut at the Annecy Animation Film Festival in France in 2010, it went on to win numerous awards at international film festivals around the world, an event that marked the restoration of glory to Chinese animation. Departing from the “National Style,” Piercing 1 does not focus on traditional artistic forms such as ink-painting, paper-cutout, and Peking opera. Unlike the obsession with the fantastic and idealized past (folk lore, legends, fairy tales) that characterized animated filmmaking at the classic Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Piercing 1 is deeply rooted in the present, using social realism to portray and document the embittered lives of migrant workers in contemporary China. The film does not target children, as the Shanghai Animation Film Studio did, but rather aims at adults who can understand the dark social realities and black humor in the film. Only the language and images of characters, buildings, and stories attests to its Chinese identity.


Fig 6: Piercing 1, by Liu Jian, 2010

It then came as no surprise that the screening of Piercing 1 was a special program at this year’s SICAF. The majority of audience members, including myself, were already familiar with this film because it had won many prizes at international film festivals and because it is available online. The attraction of this program was the screening talk with Liu Jian (Fig 7). After the screening, Liu Jian, together with a moderator (Song Kyoung-Won, a film critic and member of SICAF 2015 pre-selection committee), came to the stage and discussed the making of this animated feature film. Then the floor was opened to questions from the audience. In answering my question about the role of the state, Liu Jian mentioned that after Piercing 1 won awards at international film festivals, it caught the attention of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television in Beijing. An official approached him and expressed his interest in releasing the film in public theaters in China. However, after the official watched it, he maintained that although he personally liked it very much, the ending was too dark to be released in public theaters. This case further demonstrates the power of international film festivals in shaping national and local animated filmmaking, distribution, and screening, be it successful or not.


Fig 7: Screening Talk with Liu Jian (middle)

The special screening of “The Rising Artists of Chinese Animation” at 2:30pm on May 27 further foregrounded the role of China at SICAF. This special program included 14 animated shorts made by contemporary Chinese animators such as Wang Hai-Yang, Lei Lei, Chen Xi/An Xu, and Shen Jie. Their animation techniques vary, but 2D CGI animation was the dominant method. Although some of the films tended to be more realistic, offering a cohesive story, the majority of the films demonstrated a tendency towards abstraction and experimentalism. They also demonstrated a far more radical departure from the “National Style.” In most cases, and especially in the films animated by Lei Lei, the formal style did not emphasize Chinese cultural identity (Fig 8). The images were often abstract figures or geometrical shapes devoid of national and local references. Most of them did not have a cohesive story and imparted a sense of artistic spontaneity and improvisation. They also showed a strong interest in the future, not just the past (like the films made by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio) and the present (like Liu Jian’s Piercing 1). It was very difficult to tell the country of origin of these films.


Fig 8: Big Hands, by Lei Lei, 2012

One more special program about China at SICAF was the screening of Yugo and Lala 2 (2014), a 3D computer animation directed by Wang Yunfei in China. This film is a sequel to Yugo and Lala (2012) that recounts the adventures of an audacious village girl who saves the human beings from being turned into animals. The film is intended for a family audience, and it is popular in South Korea as well as in China. National essence and national identity are not the concern of this film—indeed, we can hardly tell its country of origin by simply watching it. To some extent, digital animation distances animated films from national artistic traditions and draws them closer to the realm of technology. This distancing somehow contributes to the media democratization and internationalism in contemporary animated filmmaking.


Fig 9: Mosquito’s Revenge, by Li Zhiyong, 2014

Although Chinese animation had a high profile at SICAF, there were only a few Chinese animated films that were submitted for official competition. The Mosquito’s Revenge, an episode from an animation series directed by Li Zhiyong at the Communication University of China, won the “Special Mention” for the category of SICAF Kids (Fig 9).  This film uses a mixture of animation techniques, such as pixilation and 2D computer animation, to portray a humorous story. Weather Boy, a feature film directed by Chiu Li-Wei (a Taiwanese animator who received his PhD degree from Beijing Film Academy in mainland China), was nominated for the prizes under the category of Feature Films (Fig 10). Xue Zehao, a UCLA based Chinese student also submitted his animated short “Currency Affairs” for official competition under the category of Student Films. Full of youthful energy and creativity, contemporary Chinese animated films have broken free from the once dominant National Style.


Fig 10: Taiwanese Director Chiu Li-Wei at SICAF

To some extent, the Chinese animated films screened at SICAF epitomize the trajectory of Chinese animation at international film festivals. Chinese animators’ euphoric and traumatic encounter with an international film festival in 1956 shaped the philosophy of the “National Style” at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Undoubtedly the emphasis on national essence and national identity in Chinese animated filmmaking did work at international film festivals for several decades. However, with the compression of space and time as an outcome of globalization, and with the rise of digital media since the 1990s, the assertion of local and national identities, which was originally a product of the Cold War ideology, has become more and more tenuous in Chinese animated filmmaking today.    11

Fig 11: The three International Juries (from left to right: Kim Sang-Hwa, Daisy Yan Du, Berat ILK) for Student Films and SICAF Kids, May 23, 2015

After all, animation is an international medium to begin with, and great artistic works can transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. As one of the international juries at SICAF this year, I was surprised by the fact that ninety percent of the films nominated for prizes by our panel were the same, even though the international juries (Kim Sang-Hwa, Berat ILK, and myself) in charge of Student Films and SICAF Kids were from different countries, cultures, generations, and educational backgrounds (Fig 11). We were really touched by great works and paid no attention at all to their countries of origin. Tigers Tied Up in One Rope, the film that won Jury’s Special under the category of SICAF Kids, was officially labeled a French film, but the film was based on a Korean children’s story written and illustrated by Kwon Moon-Hee (Fig 12). Tsunami, the film that won “Special Mention” under the category of Student Films, was submitted from Denmark, but the story was about the aftermath of the Tsunami in Japan (Fig 13). For great artistic works, there are no national boundaries.


Fig 12: Benoit Chieux the animator (left) and Kwon Moon-Hee the writer (right) for Tigers Tied Up in One Rope

I do not know how the international juries evaluated the Chinese animated film short Why Is the Crow Black-Coated in Venice in 1956 or how the internal gossips among them traveled to China with great fanfare and contributed to such an important event in the history of Chinese animation. They probably never knew that their casual remarks would shape Chinese animators’ artistic philosophy and the style of Chinese animation for several decades. Even now the “National Style” is still regarded by many as the best way, and perhaps the only way, for Chinese animation to restore its past glory on the international stage. My own personal experience as an international jury might be different, for I felt that I was educated and transformed by the powerful films I watched and evaluated, and I’m sure the other international juries had a similar experience.


Fig 13: The Award for Tsunami


I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Lee Kyung Hwa and SICAF for providing the photos for this essay.


Daisy Yan Du is Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature and Visual Culture at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Her recent publication includes a forthcoming article on animals and animation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Positions: Asia Critique 24.2 (2016). She has also published articles on film, literature, gender, and popular culture in Gender & History, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She is currently working on a book manuscript that examines Chinese animation between the 1940s and 1970s.

[1] Yan Hui and Suo Yabin, Zhongguo donghua dianyingshi (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 2005), 36.

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