Director – Wan Guchan – 1963 – China – Cert. N/C U – 36m
A mermaid falls for a poor fisherman and moves in with him arousing the wrath of her sea goddess mother – 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
A coral island, drifting mists, drifting faerie maidens. Underwater. Every morning, says the female narrator, a fisherman goes out in his boat and sings to these mermaids. But their mother the sea goddess doesn’t like to be disturbed so she hides the girls from him by increasing layers of blue fog.
The fisherman goes about his work and his net keeps picking up a conch shell which he keeps throwing back in the water. When he returns home, there is food prepared on his table, which is odd because he lives alone.
Next day when he’s out, the camera closes in on his simple cottage. Inside there’s an urn, inside the urn floats the golden conch (the image distorted by patterned glass) which lap dissolves into a faerie maiden. She walks round the house, magics a fire alight in his stove and opens the window to marvel at his singing.
Returning home to a smoking chimney, the fisherman hides behind his nets which he’s hung up to dry to watch his house, birds gathering round it, eventually sneaking in suddenly and finding the maiden. His declarations of poverty don’t put her off – she wants to find a friend to be with. He puts a flower in her hair. They settle into domestic bliss for the next two or three years, with her helping him sort the fish he catches on his fishing trips.
One night there’s a huge storm. The shutters keep blowing open and the flower is blown out of her hair to be found and carried off by a seagull. The seagull has sent a message from the sea goddess: the faerie maiden must be home by dawn. Stunned by her telling him this as she leaves in the wee small hours, the fisherman makes several trips in his boat to confront the sea goddess…
The production is lovingly rendered using a cut-out technique that owes much to the silhouette animation of German silent film animator and pioneer Lotte Reiniger, from which the Studio appears to have created something uniquely its own. The visual designs and costumes draw heavily on Chinese culture.
Refusing to rely on technique alone, however impressive, director Wan fills his tale with vibrant imagery. On one occasion, the fisherman is silhouetted against a blue and yellow sea and an orange sky and on another pole vaults onto his boat as he sets out early one morning. Where he weaves a basket, the action is compellingly rendered on the screen as the process of strips of vegetation being literally woven around one another.
The fisherman’s voyages to confront the sea goddess owe much to Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, even to the extent of having him travel from right to left as wave after wave rises up on the left-hand side of the screen.
The whole thing is captivating storytelling and quite wonderful to look at.
Free to watch: The History of Shanghai Animation Film Studio
The film played on the BBC in 1981.