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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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

07:35:59 pm , 582 words, 1406 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Lee Sung-Gang retrospective

Onuri (2003)

I haven't seen much of recent Asian independent animation, but Lee Sung-Gang's shorts, which I saw today at the VIFF, are easily the most engaging and convincing I've seen anywhere in a while. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the screening of My Beautiful Girl Mari later today, at which Lee was going to be present for a post-screening Q&A session. It would have been nice to be there for that. Before the shorts he said a quick hello (and I mean quick - one sentence), but it was a nice surprise to see him there, as I wasn't aware he'd be in attendance. It seems like an event when a person who was a lone independent animator until just a few years ago is now making overseas appearances at retrospectives of his work.

When I saw Mari I sensed the hand of a master at work, and knew there had to be a previous history there for someone to be able to make a film with as sure a touch as that, and I was right. His early films have all the earmarks of a one-man operation, with a very low-budget approach, including music done by Lee himself. But that's the wonderful thing about animation: it's not the budget that counts. It's the creator. And the shorts of Lee Sung-Gang are among the best proofs of that maxim I've ever run across. Better produced shorts with more going on have left me bored.

Still and mood are the keywords here, but every moment is convincing, and every frame of animation feels just right, with not a frame more than needed to express the idea at hand and establish precisely the right rhythm to carry you along in the flow. Nostalgia, loneliness, war, separation are ideas evoked successfully in the beautiful but never self-indulgent images that play across the screen - charcoal gradients and diffuse light like the faded memories depicted. This is visual poetry with raw emotional power, but not the shameless and maudlin emotion that passes for emotion in other lesser artists. These are among the best 'personal' films I've seen in the medium of animation, in that they successfully speak of personal experience to audiences rather than just the creator.

There's one amusing stylistic hiccup along the way (done in a 80s video game style) suggesting Lee's true breadth, and then after a chronological gap due due to his discovery and work on Mari, we get the short that capped, and crowned, the selection, his recent film based on a Jeju island creation myth, Onuri - a magnificent gem that alone would have been worth the price of admission. You couldn't ask for a better screening: one that starts off fabulous and only gets better. Though stylistically nothing like Mari, Onuri (or O-nu-ri) is, like his feature debut, no longer a one-man show; it's a more conventional product of many hands, without the dark subject-matter of his early shorts. But Lee's touch is unmistakable, and the film has a unique rhythm and tone that is unrivaled, with fantastic backgrounds, inventive characters and great dynamic action and pacing. The fact that he should go in such a different direction immediately after that film is a good sign. Lee is obviously no one-hit-wonder, so I very much look forward to seeing more from him in the years to come. He's one of the most promising rising animation stars in the whole Asia region as far as I'm concerned.


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