Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: September 2004, 03

Friday, September 3, 2004

07:50:46 pm , 1008 words, 963 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Asian features

Probably my two favorite non-Japanese animated films of the last few years were My Life as McDull (2001, Hong Kong) and My Beautiful Girl Mari (2001, South Korea)... not that there are many other candidates.

Mari really blew me away first of all due to the simple fact that I'd never seen almost any other Korean animation, yet the skill of this director was truly something, and the film was really a success. I would have expected something more half-assed like Chinese Ghost Story for a breakthrough film like this for the Korean animation industry, but they got it right the first time, and that impressed me. The influence of certain Japanese animation is certainly there, but this isn't just a knock-off -- the spirit of the film is fundamentally different -- and a film like this couldn't have been made in Japan. I know too little about the film and its director and the history of the Korean animation industry, and would be interested to learn more. The animation is obviously the film's most distinctive feature, certainly like nothing I've ever seen in a major commercial film like this. I hope the Korean animation industry continues in this direction rather than the blatant-anime-knock-off direction of Wonderful Days.

McDull is the second big Hong Kong animated feature that I know of after 1997's A Chinese Ghost Story. To me the animation seemed bottom of the barrel, both the CG and the cel work, but what I liked about the film is that the directing and story are enough to overcome the handicap, and they don't even bother to try to mix the two. The film succeeds in acheiving a genuinely original and convincing atmosphere due to these blatantly clashing visuals. It almost seems like an expression of the theme -- the cutesy piglet during the whole film while the protagonist is an innocent underacheiving kid, and the live action that finally matches the backgrounds once he becomes an adult. The whole concept of the film is really thought-provoking in this way, offering ideas I've never seen in any commercial animated features yet, so I enjoyed it tremendously, though I still hope the Hong Kong animation tries to make some progress beyond the crude animation in this film (or was that on purpose?). Really the film strikes me more as a live-action film in tone and purpose. This is practically independent film-level material, which seems really ambitious to me, so I for one will be very interested to see what sort of animated features come from Hong Kong in the future.

Why was A Chinese Ghost Story half-assed? I probably shouldn't talk, because I know very little about its production, but I'm guessing it's because, unlike the latter two films, which were 100% native productions, this one was a co-production, with all the CG done in Hong Kong and all the animation done in Japan. I gather much animation is done this way today, and that probably dooms most of it to a similar fate. You can't outsource creativity. Animation has to be a team effort. From what I remember there was an anecdote about how they spent tons of time mailing videos back and forth trying to get just one scene right. One of the things that distinguishes this film from McDull, which at first sight seems to share the same basic approach of cel-style 2D animation over CG backgrounds, is that here they obviously wanted the two to work together, while in McDull part of the theme of the film is tied to the the very intentional mismatch of "sordidly" realistic CG backgrounds with Hello Kitty-style characters. At least, that's how I interpret it.

A Chinese Ghost Story should probably get the benefit of the doubt, because it was a pretty ambitious project for its day -- not only an international co-production between the fledgling Hong Kong and the dominant Japanese animation industries -- but also one of the first full-CG films combining 2D and 3DCG. It's actually very watchable if you you're not a seeker of perfection. With a little imagination you can appreciate it as two films in one - an anime film superimposed over a Hong Kong CG film. Okay, maybe that's going too far. But there is a sense of two competing approaches to filmmaking: the anime method that tries to create a delicate balance between buildup and climax with the ideas and animation, juxtaposed with the Hong Kong method that kind of layers it on more evenly throughout. Yet to a degree there is a bit of one in the other, because the Japanese side had a degree of input in the rough movement of the CGI when they felt it was necessary, and of course the Hong Kong side was responsible for all the designs, and suggested that the basic tone of the animation should be very "Asian", in other words not the fluid style of western animation but the choppy, pose-filled melodramatic style of anime; Dragon Ball, of course, being very popular in Hong Kong.

The anime part is actually nice and worth a look. The anime part featured a lot of big figures, hired to make this ambitious project succeed. The 2D director and storyboarder was Tetsuya Endo, who was director's assistant on Totoro; Kazuo Komatsubara was the animation director; and Takashi Nakamura was co-storyboarder and layout artist. The director was Andrew Chen, and the character designer was Frankie Chung. There is even at least one spot of good animation worth seeking out: incredibly flexible veteran animator Ohashi Manabu did the kung fu fight at the beginning, after having just animated something completely different, the impressionistic, flowing cityscape in Junkers. Also, a lot of effort was put into the big scene in the middle of the film where the flying contraption appears in the ghost town, with Komatsubara even getting involved as an animator to get Tsui Hark's very precise requests for the scene just right, and consequently this scene probably represents the ideal combination of the two sides in the film.