A ridiculously satisfying underdog sports story set in the highly specialized arena of the Chinese lion dance, “I Am What I Am” features a plot familiar enough that it could have been computer generated, peppered with sufficiently unique details. so that the experience constantly succeeds in surprising . The result is an inspired blend of engineering and ingenuity, distinguished by some of the most human-like character animation this side of the uncanny valley – not realistic, mind you, but relatable, and a welcome departure from the cutesy caricature of Pixar and its American ilk produced at a mere fraction of the budget.
Premiering as a work in progress at the Animation Is Film festival in Los Angeles, this “Karate Kid” anime film from “Kung Food” creator Haipeng Sun represents another breakthrough for the animation scene in full growth in China. Filled with culturally specific humor, the toon is clearly aimed at serving local audiences (on Douban and Maoyan platforms, it turned out to be the highest-rated domestic release of 2021 after it opened in China on December 8), though that outsiders should also appreciate such a relatable glimpse behind the mask of the colorful custom, in which teams of trained dancers navigate the two-person costume through high pedestals and other difficult obstacles.
A skinny, sheepish boy with a girl’s name, teased by others for looking like a “sick cat”, Juan lives alone in a rural town in Guangdong Province while his parents work in the big city. His self-esteem is nearly non-existent until one day he sees a mysterious competitor outmaneuver local bullies in a lion dance contest – a thrilling “capture the flag” style game on an elaborate bamboo scaffold, which the virtual camera observes with all the dynamism of a wuxia film. The winner turns out to be a girl his own age, also named Juan, who gifts the kid with his lion mask and gives him the motivation he needs to try the sport.
The next half hour will feel familiar enough, as Juan (the boy) enlists rejected Cat and Dog friends to form a team, then seeks out former champion Huang Feihong, now a saltfish seller, to drag them to victory. The film piles on one montage after another, alternating between obvious and unexpected jokes along the way, to compress the kind of physical training that would normally take a decade or more. After Juan wins an initial local contest, the plot takes an unexpected turn, as Juan does the honorable thing to help his parents, retiring from the next level and instead moving to Shanghai to earn some money for the family. .
At times like this, the film toes the line of feel-good propaganda, reinforcing the behavior expected of honorable and obedient citizens, instead of celebrating the kind of personal glory that American audiences are more accustomed to (although rest assured that American toons feel like some kind of behavioral brainwashing to foreign audits). Screenwriter Zelin Li gives these lanky kids memorable personalities, which come alive all the more thanks to the endearing and over-the-top way they’ve been rendered — not to mention the sleek, sped-up lion dance moves.
In China, the film drew criticism for its character designs, which include small squinting eyes (said to have been done to differentiate the Japanese animation style) and unflattering proportions (one of Juan’s pals is a Fat Albert-style stereotype). But the truth is that the faces here are so expressive that they elevate the experience above its relatively formulaic plot, serving as a reminder that animation is a lot like lion dancing, as the artists hide behind elaborate avatars. and attempt to convey behaviors and emotions that the general public can recognize. . The backgrounds are particularly impressive, including a golden-hued forest with its crepe paper canopy of saffron-red leaves, demonstrating just how far computer animation has come.
While “I Am That I Am” clearly speaks to various issues of national identity, the feelings depicted are universal. There’s something to be said for the way it celebrates characters from the bottom of society, like working-class Juan. It’s still pretty rare to come across a Chinese movie centered around ordinary people, as opposed to mythical and magical heroes (like “Ne Zha”), but it’s easy to see why that would resonate with audiences.
Of course, the movie wouldn’t be as satisfying if Juan hadn’t changed his mind at the last minute when he showed up to compete in the big competition in Shanghai. Kudos to the team for designing a surprising way to play, where winning isn’t as important as Juan proving his own worth.
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