Animal fables, mesmerizing artistry and a blend of ancient and modern aesthetics infuse Chinese animated short films screening Monday at REDCAT, a highlight of the citywide China Onscreen Biennial exhibition of rare mainland productions. Digitally restored by the China Film Archive, these classic shorts offer a glimpse into the history of Chinese animation and indirectly highlight its relationship with the country's turbulent 20th-century history.
The program begins with The Mouse and the Frog (1934), believed to be the oldest Chinese animated film in existence. It's a whimsical frolic by the Wan brothers, the country's animation pioneers (and subjects of a Google doodle in January). Emulating the bouncy cuteness of early Fleischer cartoons (think Betty Boop), it depicts a charming undersea world of fluttering mermaids and dueling swordfish.
Eager to "legitimize" animation as a serious art form, the Wans sought to merge American entertainment values with Soviet educational imperatives; an unrestored live-action prelude sets up the animation as a lesson for a mischievous schoolboy.
The Wan brothers continued to refine their craft, producing the first Chinese animated feature, Princess Iron Fan (a big commercial success and reportedly a formative influence on Japan's Osamu Tezuka) in 1941 and the country's second animated feature, The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (also digitally restored and recently screened in 3-D at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) in 1961/1964. The scarcity of features can be attributed to China's tumultuous political landscape, marked by events such as the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937, World War II and the 1949 founding of Mao Zedong's communist regime.
Still, shorts were in great supply. The state Shanghai Animation Film Studio, founded in 1950, became the nation's sole production house for decades. The studio produced hundreds of short works, and a Golden Age blossomed from the late 1950s to the mid '60s. Artists of this period were inspired by the liberalizing Hundred Flowers Campaign, which ostensibly encouraged new ideas and experimentation.
REDCAT will screen three Golden Age films, the first being the colorful and inventive Pigsy Eats Watermelon (1958) by the Wan brother Guchan. It's regarded as China's first paper-cut film, in which richly detailed figures and landscapes are animated from paper designs. If the hinged, angular movements recall the famed silhouette films of Lotte Reiniger, that's no surprise, given her interest in Chinese shadow puppets. Bright colors establish the foreground, and subdued tones recede into the background. The fable about a lazy (bourgeois?) pig that selfishly eats rather than shares a melon with his hungry traveling companions (a monkey, a monk and his disciples) had special potency in the first year of the Great Chinese Famine.
The other two Golden Age titles in the program were directed by Te Wei, a major animator whose work still awaits the kind of broad appreciation in the West that it deserves. A successful cartoonist and painter of the 1930s and 1940s, Te Wei was appointed head of the Shanghai studio and made strong impressions at European festivals with his beautiful ink-wash films Little Tadpoles Look for Their Mother (1960, co-directed by Tang Cheng) and The Cowherd's Flute (1963, co-directed by Qian Jiajun).
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Both resemble atmospheric paintings that were, at the time, long in vogue (by artists such as Qi Baishi and Li Keran), which emphasized animals and landscapes. Masterworks of tone, Te Wei's films elegantly render the natural world and carefully utilize white space to suggest undulating waterscapes or fog-infused forests. His attention to delicate brushstrokes and shifting degrees of opacity testify to the power of suggestion. Colors are mostly subdued but occasionally flash with moments of intensity — a goldfish's crimson tail leaps off the screen.
Tragically, Te Wei was a victim of the Cultural Revolution in 1965, when the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was shut down and many of its artists were sent to re-education farms or factories. At a pig farm, Te Wei met A Da, an artist who reportedly spent his evenings hiding under a mosquito net, drawing caricatures of the hated Gang of Four, who were blamed for the persecutions.
It wasn't until the mid-'70s that the Chinese animation community resumed work, producing its second Golden Age in the late 1970s and early '80s. Three Monks (1980), also screening at REDCAT, is a pivotal work from this era. Directed by A Da, its stylized, two-dimensional space, square aspect ratio and abstracted designs make it a modern, humorous spin on a Buddhist proverb. Three monks arrive separately at a mountain temple, grow impatient with a rascally mouse and quarrel over who will fetch the drinking water. Although it leaves its precise meaning open for interpretation, its overtones of karmic retribution and the need for teamwork suggested a salve for an exhausted nation.
CHINA ONSCREEN BIENNIAL: ANIMATED, GOLDEN AND RESTORED | REDCAT | 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Mon., Oct. 22, 8:30 p.m. | redcat.org