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Fringes of (Chinese) Animation

Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur 2020

notes by Youyang Yu

Fringes of (Chinese) Animation

Compared to Western standards, contemporary indie Chinese animation often rises above the surface thanks to its bold and wild graphics, straddling between the line of experimental films and the art world — though breaking into the international festival scene only with a lonesome few. Feinaki Beijing Animation Week's Festival Director Youyang Yu explains and reflects.

To refer to Chinese filmmakers as "orphan artists", often as a joke, is not an exaggeration if you think of how big their mother country is. From the European perspective, China is about the same in size as the entire European continent, but houses almost twice the population. These creative so-called lone rangers from the East who have managed to grab international attention have been notably becoming a quick expanding influential group in recent years. Thanks to the guest country program at Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, we were able to draw a fascinating window towards the cultural story that grows rampant outside the block of the Eurocentric world.

Not a league

When we talk about China, we can’t simply put random (grand)parents, young adults and teenagers altogether, labelling them Chinese, thinking they are one big family hence must share a significant amount of certain qualities. They are not. Even though the Chinese government pushes an unified identity upon its people, the Chinese citizens break it apart due to age gaps and the obvious and inevitable class & financial divisions.

The identity recognition is especially obvious in often self-expressive indie animated films. Artists — spreading among the spectrum from teachers who work for the state owned educational system, professionals who are represented by galleries and agencies, and young graduates who studied abroad and work as freelances — delicately respond to it through sensitive and intuitive observation of life experiences. They do not belong to one league, but their works echo the different facets of Chinese society which develops so fast that in just a few decades, it seems Chinese filmmakers are popping into the international art scene from all directions at once.

Identity comes from opposition

If we try very hard to look for what’s Chinese in Chinese films, we almost immediately exclude the more universal and ordinary life experiences and are led by a ‘novelty seeking’ perspective. Curators and audiences who romanticize symbols of cultural significance have collected a group of international artists specialized in “representing their country” by contributing a collection of renounced imagery. This is not a bad thing as it reflects the fact that the foreign subtlety is of little importance to the native audience, in which a recognizable visual language appropriately played a light-hearted role to introduce a slightly broader cultural horizon — diplomatically and friendly.

Not that I’m trying to elevate the importance of Chinese artists to the point that European audiences need to endure a lengthy cultural lecture before appreciating their works, but to point out a factual situation that Chinese artists are facing. When emerging into the international art scene, the Chinese artists are mostly considered to be supplementary in a dominant Western art world. Furthermore, they are often expected to be an “expert” on the Chinese matter, which is hardly tangible to the West as it was only portrayed in a distanced and culturally fragmented way before. Do you see what I mean? Chinese artists are given only such limited exposures yet are expected to be the gateway to “a real China” simultaneously — what a tremendous responsibility and difficult position that is!

So-called sneaky Chinese artists who had wanted to break into the international art scene earlier than anyone knew it well, wear given the “Chinese matter expert coat” in order to compete with each other on “who to represent China the best”, while yet again mostly catering to the Western taste game, in order to get selected and promoted into the spotlight. A malicious and arrogant narrative that is, but with that said, some would even add: “What a bunch of bootlickers!” Except, actually the opposite is true. Chinese artists don’t spend their life creating works to satisfy the Western taste of which they have actually little or no idea. The West choses what the West wants to see.

For a long time, “international art that looked ethnic” is everything the West wanted to see from China: graphical works that showed plenty Chinese symbols like ‘Tear of Chiwen’ from Xun Sun. It’s a beautiful piece of work that references traditional Chinese mythical creatures — mostly hand drawn in black and white with traditional Chinese ink. Yet it also addresses the cultural clash against the West, making it a smart play on the cultural identity via a sophisticated and classic visual language. All in all a fitting response to the Western interest on the “ethnic but critical from a global point-of-view” type of art.

On the other hand, besides what the Western world is actively looking for, Chinese artists do love to build their national identity via historical, traditional and carefully crafted elements. Since the political reform in 1978, an entire generation of Chinese people have been living in a hype of eternal economic growth, better future and the common dream that China will eventually come back to its peak and will overlook the world from the top again — as it used to be way back when. The collective high esteem on this great country made people refuse to accept a total cultural invasion from the West. It’s almost mandatory for the artists (and any culture making professionals) to find the Chinese essence preserved in the history; rebuilding a new, positive and influential modern Chinese image for the people to enjoy and identify with. They have always tried their best confronting the West, rather than catering to it.

Chinese voice(s)

The trend of wanting to find a uniquely “Chinese voice” in the field of animation can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was formed and sponsored by the government. Many short animations were produced by an official collective force that was actively repackaging Chinese culture, trying to define what Chinese art is.

‘Tadpoles Looking For Mama’ (小蝌蚪找妈妈) directed by Te Wei (and a whole bunch of other elite artists in 1960) amazed the world with its unique Chinese ink painting style animation. Feature length animation ‘Havoc in Heaven’(大闹天宫) from 1964 was four years in the making. It gathered the best top order artists in China and was produced in an extremely high standard, as if it was carrying out a top political mission. It was confidently broadcasted to the Chinese people but only wowed the rest of the world ten years after the Cultural Revolution, then also lost further successors due to the chaotic havoc.

Chinese public discourse on big ethical and political topics such as freedom and democracy heated up during the 80s and the 90s after China reformed and opened up its economy in 1978. Cultural revolution initiated by the Communist Party failed and the West, with its “universal value”, didn’t seem so evil after all. Many Chinese artists born around the 70s and 80s were thrilled to join the international trend in their prime time and felt destined to make works that played a bigger role on society: embracing the international allure and commenting or responding to the social and political changes of their time. However, individualism was only a strange imported concept back then, nothing like the contemporary art scene which focuses heavily on what an individual artist got to say nowadays. Animation production in China remained its collective form, which was revived within the big studios in the 80s that were again funded by the government. This is why independent animation production was never an option back then, until the government cut off all financial funding to the animation short film productions later in the 90s.

After losing the government sponsorships, due to the transformation of the Chinese society, Chinese animation production unions like Shangai Animation Film Studio, started to look for ways to survive on their own. Instead of continuing to make animated shorts, they started to devote themselves to outsourcing the workflow of foreign animation projects. Many Chinese animators made a fortune out of working on outsource commissions, but the production of the real inspirational, Chinese oriented animated short films was ignored, lost and forgotten.

Now what?

Chen Xi, co-director of ‘The Six’ and teacher in animation at the Beijing Film Academy, was born in the 1970s and has worked as an animation artist for 20 years. He took his first steps in 2000, when personal computers were introduced into people’s everyday lives. Many animation pioneers like him were among the first to try a new software developed by Macromedia called Flash, which made solo animation productions possible in the first place. More and more creative young artists joined the trend when a website called The Flashers become popular as a cheap and entertaining video platform for the masses. It was only after the Flashers era that the independent animation art scene began to reform in China.

By 2010, independent animation filmmakers had started to leave a mark on the international festival scene. Lei Lei, Wang Haiyang, Chen Xi, and An Xu had won some awards, which encouraged younger artists like Shen Jie. The past decade was an interesting time, with China sending almost 600 000 students to study abroad each year. Chinse students learned alongside their Western colleagues in renowned art schools. Their works show more similarity to their tutors’ and colleagues’ films than to those of other artists coming from China. Young art graduates who were born after 1990 have a different relationship to their Chinese identity than those born in the 1970s or early 1980s.

On the one hand, people who had lived both in China and the West became more and more common. In their minds the distinction between both worlds, so to speak, smoothed out. On the other hand, Chinese government has been tightening its censorship on political opinions and social criticism so hard, that the public discourse would dismiss anything concerning in-depth investigation on public policy; they get used to deleted official scandals and its public commentaries and are forced to redirect social discussion to everyday consumerism life. Angry works disappeared gradually anyhow. Younger generations growing up on the mainland often aren’t even interested enough in talking about these sensitive issues because of an unintentionally conditioned thinking, which automatically skips topics that don’t promise any feedback due to the airtight censorship, similar to a sort of “learned hopelessness”.

In ‘Half Asleep’, Cai Caibei, a young animation graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, delicately investigates the tactile sensual experiences she has collected. The film presents a series of actions such as scratching, scraping, piercing, touching, swinging, or floating, which can be traced to her deeply personal experience rather than making a political statement. As the film lacks dialogue or culturally significant symbols, it’s almost impossible to tell the director’s nationality without reading the end credits. Similarly ‘Sparky’, a recent award-wining short animated graduation film from Dian Liang, experiments via its wacky but uniquely strong visual style so effortlessly that it can only be called original, rather than regional.

In a way the creative concern of these young Chinese artists breaks apart from their bigger national identity, as it’s mixed seamlessly with their other talented international peers. “Aren’t they just completely westernized? What’s Chinese about it?” I think this intentionally picking on the “Chineseness” of films can definitely be answered by the idea of “identity comes from opposition”. Those who try to make an active judgement on whether these films are Chinese or not — despite that they’re actually crafted by Chinese directors — have become believers on a definite opposition between China and the West, which, for them, overrules the fact that those directors make works that oppose their personal challenges (which happens not to be the definite distinction between China and the West). How the artists see themselves does not always align with what the audience wants to believe. Why can’t some Chinese artists be truly original without emphasizing their national identity? Although the sentiment of Chinese artists considered to be just “local” has yet to pass completely, keeping to seek the geographical opposition solidifies nothing but a localism point of view. This forces an opposition that isn’t necessary to build comprehension, but is limiting the depth of our understanding of some extraordinary creations.

While we’re enjoying the cultural fruit growing from the exchange of global capital — while simultaneously making an effort to create a more open, respectful and inclusive cultural environment — the “foreign story” should never be told merely in an exotic tone. Some insights from a distanced individual in another country could contrast and reflect our understanding of the world. Like a mirror, it enables us to examine ourselves objectively from a brand new perspective.

Tackling the censorship

When taking off the pressure of finding the universal interconnection between the vastly different Chinese artists, let’s appreciate Chai Mi’s ‘Birds Dream’ which talks about her insecurity in this fast changing world by ways of beautiful stylish visuals, as well as Ping Wong’s abstract and bizarre sexual poem ‘Who’s the Daddy’ with its incredibly bold yet personal and (at many times) offensive humour.

I have to admit that the Chinese artists based mostly on the mainland are impacted a lot more from the government’s propaganda and regulation scheme. They just simply can’t get away from it. They are either following the order to make endless positive praise of the Chinese social achievements or are trying to craft a response that exists on the balance of forcefully criticizing society but not outbraving the censorship. Young artists like Su Zhong (‘Animal Year’) and Mao Haonan (‘Action, Almost Unable to Think’) show an obvious political intention in creating a simulated dystopian world that presents contradictions and ridicules our society. Even though the chaotic and game-like environment avoids a direct association with reality, it mentally aligns with the grotesque and uncomfortable experience that the powerless people face in China every day.

While the older generation is interested in building their perfect image of China, the younger generation’s favourite subject takes many different directions: it either mirrors the experience of a privileged and mobile international lifestyle in the cultural centres of the Western world, or it is a visually sophisticated and intimate rendition of their personal struggles, or a form of protest disguised in Dadaist nonsense to avoid censorship.

The films in the ‘Fringe of Animation’ programme are a collection of individual approaches to the art of animation — a limited number of specimens that, needless to say, can never represent such a monolithic concept as is subsumed under the term “contemporary Chinese animation”. These artists are Chinese, and they are original, which means that they don’t necessarily make “Chinese animation”. The good news is: Chinese people also want original work that surprises and confuses them instead of what they have seen many times before. Animation festivals such as the Feinaki Beijing Animation Week, curated by independent programmers and showcasing independent work, are gaining social influence in China, and art festivals are popping up everywhere. It’s a good time for contemporary animation in the lively and crowded streets of China, for sure.

© Images

1 'Half Asleep' (Cai Caibei)
2 'Birds Dream' (Mi Chai)
3 'Tear of Chiwen' (Sun Xun)
4 'Who's the Daddy' (Wong Ping)
5 'The Six' (Chen Xi/An Xu)
6 'Monkey' (Shen Jie)

A short version of this article was published in the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur festival catalogue of 2020.