Directors – Qian Jiaxin, Wang Borong – 1981 – China – Cert. N/C U – 18m
A man pretends to be a musician in order to profit from the high wages paid to the king’s court pipe players in the Qi period – available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th
Two thousand years ago in the Qi period, the King of Qi is dissatisfied with the court entertainment and demands a grand ensemble of 300 pipe players. Invitations go out throughout the land and one finds its way to hustler Mr. Nanguo who dumps his current cockfighting venture to muscle in on the well paid musicians’ gig.
At an audition, he impresses with impromptu juggling and claims he can play the pipe. Playing before the king, he is the one person unable to play the tune with the others. First he covers for himself by shooing away some cranes for making the wrong noise, then he stuff beans into his pipes so that no sound will come out when he plays.
Alas, a bean dislodges and goes down the neck of the player in front. Summoned before the king, he defends himself with a mixture of flattery and further deceit. The king does not see through this and Nanguo is handsomely rewarded. That night, he dreams of demanding his turn at being king until the furious king comes after him.
In the morning, he wakes to news of the king’s death. The new king, the previous king’s son, doesn’t like the ensemble playing. In fact, he prefers solo musicians. So Mr. Nanguo is summoned to play. His deceit exposed, he rapidly flees the palace.
It’s an effective little fable about the value of honesty which also functions as a character story of a careerist liar out for no-one but himself.
The cut-out process is effectively used to bring the court and the musicians to life. The medium is perfect for conveying the rigid formality of the Qi court and its dress codes. When sections of the musicians ensemble play in unison, this means all the players must move in sync with each other, an effect which contributes to the feelings of grandeur and stateliness.
There is no attempt to follow the laws of perspective, with sets designed so that foreground objects are no bigger in appearance than those in the background while the mats on which the musicians kneel to perform are shown as if one were looking down at them. This gives the piece a very distinctive and indeed highly satisfying look harking back to the time before perspective systems were considered the normal or correct way of viewing the world.
The eponymous rogue is compelling as an archetype, so some will be transfixed by his story while others will marvel at the visuals. Either way, it’s a fascinating short.
The Story Of Mr. Nanguo is available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th.
Free to watch: The History of Shanghai Animation Film Studio