Director – Wan Guchan – 1959 – China – Cert. N/C U – 23m
A Catholic priest attempts with the help of a local official to steal a magic, wealth-producing bowl from a poor fisherman – available to rent online from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021
Animation has long proved effective as a vehicle for mythology, fairy stories, folk tales and suchlike. This little film proves it again. Made using traditional 2D Disney style backgrounds and camerawork augmented with 2D cut-out characters, it’s also a visual marvel in which can also be seen the influences as diverse as Chinese art and UPA cartoons.
A poor, coastal village is blockaded by foreign (i.e. European) ships preventing the local fishermen from pursuing their livelihood. That doesn’t however stop a local official from tormenting an old fisherman by demanding he pay Fish Tax. The man is flabbergasted since the blockade prevents him from working and therefore earning money, but the official insists, threatening to chop up the man’s boat with his axe if payment is not forthcoming the next day.
Thinking as the rain pelts down, the understandably worried man decides to go out in the storm as the ships won’t be looking for fishermen and catch fish to pay the tax. On the waters he sees a strange glow, casts his net over it and catches… an ornamental bowl. It’s very nice, but it’s not going to pay the taxman. He puts it beside his bed and sleeps.
During the night, the bowl grows a plant with a small, dancing fairy child atop it who conjures many pearls. When he awakes he is rich. So he pays the taxman then goes off to the market to tell of his good fortune.
A Catholic priest, better off than most of the indigenous locals yet given to stealing food from women’s baskets carried on their heads, overhears and ropes in the official to have him dragged to the courthouse to “return the stolen goods”.
Eventually, after pointing out that the bowl is decorated with Chinese not Western symbols and therefore can’t be the foreigner’s, the fisherman throws it on the ground to break it, whereupon the fairy child appears and gives priest and official the punishment they deserve.
The narrative is in line with much (understandable) Chinese anti-foreign sentiment and the Catholic church doesn’t come off well – although one wonders how many priests were actually this dishonest and suspects there’s a considerable degree of prejudice here. That said, it works well as a story and that sentiment is pretty convincing.
In its use of the animation medium, this is a thing of beauty – well paced with the cut-out characters lovingly animated. There are lovely technical devices – a sheet of patterned glass placed over artwork of the sea to give the impression of moving waves, miniature model fishing nets that the cut-out figures handle. The mid-storm glowing sequence is arresting. The fairy child dancing in the bowl is utterly magical in a way it might not be if a fully photorealistic effect were used.
While much of the visuals bear the hallmark of traditional Chinese art, some heavily stylised tree branches and flat areas of colour recall nothing so much as the groundbreaking visuals of the UPA (United Productions of America) cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s. A gem, and a good place to start with this retrospective.
Free to watch: The History of Shanghai Animation Film Studio