Director – Te Wei – 1960 – China – Cert. N/C U – 15m
The watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi are brought to life as a group of newly-born tadpoles search for their 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
This has a fairly simple plot which small children might enjoy as much as adults. A frog births some tadpoles, but while it is away they hatch and go around searching for her, not knowing what she looks like. Each creature they encounter – two chicks, two crayfish, three goldfish, a crab, a turtle and, finally, a catfish – gives them a slightly more accurate description than the one before. Eventually – spoiler alert! – they find mama. “But we don’t look like you!”
On some level it works as a children’s story which you can imagine being turned into a picture book for the very young. (There’s a long tradition of animated shorts which fit this bill, some of them are even adapted from already existing children’s picture books.) But that’s not really the film’s strength. Nor is it the Chinese actress’ voice-over which seems to be squarely aimed at little kids. What’s great are the visuals and the visual style.
Roughly speaking, it’s an attempt to put the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi into animation. A group of tadpoles swimming around seems almost the perfect starting point yet the narrative also affords the opportunity for sketching all manner of pond and stream life. It’s hard not to look at the goldfish and think of Cleo in Disney’s Pinocchio (Norm Ferguson, T. Hee, 1940) but this mostly avoids movie clichés to deliver something fresh and original. What you find yourself watching is the brush strokes and the artistry.
Free to watch: The History of Shanghai Animation Film Studio