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Piercing 1 is a new indie feature film from China that has been making the rounds of the world's festivals over the last year. A lot has already been written about the film's relevance and importance as an indie feature produced completely independently without any government support, so to avoid repeating what's already been said, I'll just write my thoughts about the film, which I saw in LA two weeks ago. Refer to this interview with director Liu Jian to learn about the film's background and visit the film's web site for more information.
The circumstances surrounding the making of the film have justifiably garnered as much, if not more, interest as the film itself. All made by one man, over the span of several years, on the funds earned by selling his home - truly putting his livelihood on the line. Risking everything to make the animated film of his dreams. And this without any kind of support whatsoever. Anywhere else, this might have justly inspired admiration. Doing so in China, where there's the added pressure of possible censorship and reprisal, is unprecedented and clearly brave. And Liu Jian isn't drawing funny animals. He's depicting the hard reality of life in China today without softening the edges. The whole endeavor is downright gutsy.
The first thing that popped into my head when I heard he'd sold his home to finance the film is simply that it was reckless. Short of being picked up for international distribution and becoming a cause celebre overseas, he'd wind up without anything, much less the means to make two more such films. Was such a drastic step really necessary to make the film? Obviously, it must have been. The very making of the film seems to be part of the story - a newsworthy act of self-immolation shedding light on what it takes to be an indie animator in China.
Obviously, I think the film is important and Liu Jian has achieved something incredible even if Piercing 1 isn't completely successful as a film, which I think it's not. I liked the film. But judged objectively, a lot nagged me about it. Considering the mitigating circumstances, I think most of the things that nagged me about it are eminently trivial and don't change the fact that this film a must-see to connoisseurs of Serious Animated Filmmaking. But I'm still going to put them out there, just to express my honest opinion.
You can see that it's a one-man film in a lot of ways. First of all, the animation is spare. The drawings are awkward. Even before I knew the story behind the film, the drawings immediately attracted me to the film. They're realistic and caricatural, capturing the look of Chinese nationals in a convincing way. The look reminds me slightly of what Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa did in Hamaji's Resurrection. Having seen the film, I still like the basic approach to the drawings. I'd like to see more films like this that actually draw people they way they are in reality. That's not to say I'd like to see rotoscoped animation. Liu Jian has done a good job of drawing the faces in a way that is interesting as a drawing and suited to animation. It's a much more interesting style than 'merely' rotoscoping a human face. There's thought put into how to express the defining features of each face, while at the same time it's not over-stylized the way much animation is. The problem is that a lot of the drawings don't quite work. Sometimes a chin will be foreshortened, or a pose feels a little off. It's partly because he had to do it all himself, and his skills aren't quite up to the task of drawing the bodies the right way.
I came away feeling I wish he'd had the backup of someone like Masaaki Yuasa, the way Shinya Ohira did in Hamaji. It's thanks largely to Yuasa that that Ohira was successful in that film in creating characters who felt real and yet were animated in a way that was exhilirating and groundbreaking as animation. Without those drawings and animation, Hamaji wouldn't have half its impact. I liked the realism of the drawings in Piercing 1 and their tactile, hand-drawn rendering of realistic human bodies and faces, but felt they needed to be a little better technically to achieve the right impact. They don't need to be Jin-Roh perfect or anything - I hope this doesn't come across as being anal. It's just that some of the awkward drawings threw me out of the 'zone' and made the drawings stick out in a way that I felt hindered their successfully bringing alive the characters and hence communicating the story.
Another part of me thinks the drawings are fine the way they are - rough around the edges and obviously the product of one man slaving away for a few years, doing the best he could, and doing a damn good job for the most part, considering. Involve someone else and kiss the one-man mystique goodbye. So it's a bit of a trade-off.
All of this is technical - stuff most people probably won't even think of when they see the film. What about the film itself? The story? It's essentially the story of a disaffected youth who loses his job due to the economic downturn, gets dragged into some shady business, and finds himself in over his head. The story focuses on a handful of different characters - the poor youth, a successful but unscrupulous and shady businessman, and some brutal and corrupt police officers. Their stories unfold separately until they converge in the climax to hilarious and darkly tragic effect. It's a convincing depiction of modern-day China as today's youth experience it, and at the same time it's a witty and ironic tragicomedy about the darkness and apathy and greed that animate people in China. It's a fascinating conundrum - an animated film that's a hard-hitting depiction of modern-day China. It's not an express criticism of China, but it's an uncompromising vision from a creator with a harsh view of the world he lives in. It's also an entertaining indie film in the spirit of Blood Simple. A bunch of losers with nothing to lose become embroiled in a bungled caper, and in the end, things spiral way out of their control, with bloody consequences.
The characters were each individuals. That's one area where the film excelled. They each felt like real, fully-developed people with back stories and personalities, not animation characters. The voice-acting was superb and went a long way towards bringing the characters alive as well as making the atmosphere of the film realistic and convincing. It was impressive feeling like I was seeing the real Chinese youth of today in this film - the way they talk amongst each other, the way they behave when they're just hanging out, the way the streets feel, the very specific interpersonal rules that govern social life in mainland China. The film was admirably convincing in its specific social grounding.
I usually hate it when people watch an animated film like Jin-Roh or Grave of the Fireflies and say "It would have been better as live-action". Saying this seems, if anything, to prove the high level of artistry of the film and vindicate the film's achievement. With Piercing 1, though, for once, I'm the one who felt that way. That's never occurred to me before. Not with Waking Life, not with American Pop, and certainly not with Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday.
I guess I felt the animated aspect didn't contribute enough to Piercing 1 to make it absolutely crucial to its effect. Sure, the unique drawing style devised by the director, combined with the realistic backgrounds, is genuinely interesting and does contribute considerably to the film's success. It's just that the layouts, pacing and narrative style seemed somewhat based on the style of live-action indie filmmaking. There's nothing like Taeko running up an invisible staircase to express her elation in Only Yesterday or the superb, horrific detail of the gunfights in Jin-Roh, both of which could only have been done in animation and are crucial to the success of these films - animated artistry put to the task of depicting reality, and achieving an effect that couldn't be duplicated in a live-action analogue.
Piercing 1 felt essentially like an indie Chinese film that happened to be animated. Which isn't necessarily a liability, I suppose. It's certainly an interesting new kind of animated film the likes of which I've never seen, and that's a good thing. The spare, raw, realistic tone and slow pace reminded me of many indie Chinese films I've seen like Parking and Platform. The good thing about the film is that you can appreciate it as a film and don't have to lower your standards the way you usually do with Disney films or anime films. You don't have to stoop to saying, "It's a good animated film." It's a bold, fascinating creation from a fearless animator. We've already seen the emerging talent of Chinese indie animator Lei Lei. This is a great new addition to the vanguard of Chinese indie animation. Hopefully Piercing 1 is just the start of a wave of new new indie animation from China, although the odds seem stacked against animators over there more than they are in other parts of the world. That only makes the achievement of the film all the more impressive.