With the coronavirus outbreak glooming across the globe, it’s saddened to see how it already affects the cinema industry as a whole. Current productions are halting, theatres are having the lowest attendance in years, film festivals are canceled and even the fate of Cannes this year is up to the air at the moment (this is a current-me talking and who knows how things go 3,4 weeks from now but if Cannes still decides to proceed, I’ll go as well knowing the full risks). But if this outbreak has any positive aspect, it’s that “staying indoor” means “watching more films and anime”.
For this edition, we will have a look at certain types of animated films that appeal specifically for my taste: feminime films (mostly) made by women about women’s lives. Normally, animation is a product of collaborative efforts. More so than live-action, animation requires a larger number of people working on different aspects to bring a piece of blank paper to life. But these films mentioned below shine through their personal, intimate stories about themselves, about growing-up, midlife crisis where the roles of men are either dominant or insignificant at all. “We show that women can take ownership of their stories, their lives and make their own decisions. We don’t need to ask for permission. We’re each our own owner and we do whatever we want to do. The timing was just right for this story.” says Power Paola in her Virus Tropical film. It’s worth mentioning that Persepolis from 2007 serves as the main influence for these films, as they all acknowledge the refreshing and intimate approach of Persepolis.
As a last note, I should talk in more details about the art-styles and the background about the films, since celebrating the diversity of art styles from all around the world are one of the very reasons I wanted to do this project in the first place.
Rocks in My Pockets (2014)
Rocks in My Pockets is really an odd duck. This Kickstarter-funded feature is heavily voiced-over, and voice-over is the essential part of the film. The director Signe Baumane recorded her narration with the guide of theatre director Sturgis Warner, and then the animation and scoring came afterward in accordance to the voice-over. That is to say, the animation and score are in tune with the flow of her narration, rather than standing on its own. That makes Rocks in My Pockets feel like an orchestra that flows effortlessly from one scenario to another, as it examines 5 different women in Baumane’s family (herself included) and how they struggle with depression, suicide thoughts and isolation. The animated style has a strong influence from Jan Svankmajer and Bill Plythom. Because of the limited budget, she first filmed the backgrounds made of Papier Mâché, added the handmade drawings over the top and combined the two digitally.
But what makes this film ring achingly true is the witty tone it deals with the dark subjects. In the first few minutes, Baumane details the suicide method she think of in great details, but with the humorous outlook, and that makes Rocks in My Pockets much more tolerable. She then explores her own depression by tracing the origin within her family’s line. Through her grandma and relatives’ narration, she also briefly explores the history of Latvia, the women’s role in this repressed society. The film is filled with many raw and affecting moments, but the most significant achievement in Rocks in My Pockets is the way Baumame isn’t afraid to open herself up to darkness with hopeful sentiment and the film proves to be an authentic voice (in more ways than one) of anyone who suffers from a mental illness.
(3 / 4)
Virus Tropical (2017)
While Virus Tropical is directed by a male director Santiago Caicedo, it is based on a graphic novel by Power Paola and she was heavily involved in the production of this film, drawing around 5,000 sketches during the course of 5 years. Virus Tropical is drawn based on her own childhood (if the main character’s name Paola hasn’t already informed you), from her conception to her teenage years. The art style is singular. Its monochromatic aesthetic, along with flat character designs pop out and it stays true to the graphic novel’s style. The art isn’t always consistent but it captures the feel of the era (1990s) in Latin America and the sketchy designs fit the dysfunctional dynamic of the characters. When it comes to animation though, Virus Tropical suffers. In the running scene the lack of animation makes the characters floating (instead of running) through the screen, making it look cheap and clumsy. In addition, the lack of facial expressions means that Virus Tropica relies on tears when it wants to show characters’ emotions, and for me it just becomes way too over-dramatic instead of sincere.
As for the story, Virus Tropical splits into 2 main segments, pre-teen Paola when the film focuses more on her Mother and the sisters, and the coming-of-age story as Paola moves from Ecuador to Colombia. Make no mistake though, in the world of Virus Tropical, the role of men plays more as instrumental to Paola and her Mom and sisters’ development. Her father, after having 3 girls, returns to become a Priest, leaving her Mom and the kids without any support. The film also explores the relationships between the siblings together and in regards to their mother. The plot might be wandering at times, but the honesty in how it portrays the girls, the mother, the maid living their lives is there. Out of the two half, the second half when it focuses intensively on Paola and her daily struggles speak better to me. Virus Tropical “downplays” many of her issues. Conflict that was raised in the last scene quickly resolves itself in the next, but I consider it more as Virus Tropical’s strength than shortcoming. It has this “open-dairy” quality where It’s all about the rebellious and awkward transitions of growing up and the struggles she has feel vital at the times, becomes trivial when looking back, from her first drink to her first sexual experience. It ends rather abruptly, however, which for me is a missed opportunity. Overall, Virus Tropical is not without its issue, it’s unfocused at times and feels “light” because of its slice-of-life structure, but it tells a personal, feminine story that teenage girls will surely find relatable.
(2 / 4)
On Happiness Road (2017)
In “On Happiness Road”, Happiness Road isn’t a metaphorical figure, it’s literally an actual road name where the main character Chi grows up in, and it becomes the representation of her hometown, her own and Taiwan’s identity. Inspired by watching Persepolis in her Film class, director Hsin Yin Sung’s biggest obstacle wasn’t on how she developed the story, but on how the Taiwanese film industry was skeptical of an adult animated film by a first time director. The industry is also inexperienced with making animated features, to the point that parts of the film were outsourced to Philippines. The outcome, though, is worth all the efforts. On Happiness Road’s design is simple, yet distinctly Chinese/ Taiwanese. The color palette is bright, but it’s the writing that elevates the film to another level. Before I get into the writing, I have minor complaints regarding the character designs of foreign characters. They are ALL portrayed as blonde hair, green eyes. I know the intention behind it as it highlights how different (or lack thereof, in case of Betty) the traditional and Western cultures are, but when some other insignificant characters get the same treatment (Betty’s father, the lawyer) it becomes more as stereotyped and less relevant to the theme.
Chi is in the middle of her crisis. She is in the middle of a divorce, she is pregnant and she has mixed feelings about both America where she stays and her hometown Taiwan where she comes back to visit. The feeling that she doesn’t belong anywhere certainly… ahem, hits it home. The film successfully approaches Chi’s issues in regards to her identity crisis, cultural isolation, at the same time paints her past on Happiness Road, her relations to her friends, her Grandma and the lives in Taiwan at the time. In addition, On Happiness Road deals with many of Taiwan’s cultural events, from the death of Taiwan’s former dictator Chiang Kai-shek, the 92 Earthquake that killed one of her friends, to many student movements happening across Taiwan, but these social events don’t overwhelm the central narrative, it’s just part of the life Chi is growing up with. It’s for me the third act when Chi decides to go through divorce and remain in Taiwan that loosens the overall impact for me. On Happiness Road is at its most poignant where our main character is at the crossroad and where looking back is one of the ways to confirm her choice in the present. “Home is where your heart is” – On Happiness is a simple but personal story of Chi finding where her home really is.