What dreams do I remember from attending the Holland Animation Film Festival 2017 (HAFF)? Notably, almost all Asian animation features playing at HAFF this year contain dream and/or fantasy sequences that could only have been animated.
Three of these films utilize their medium to visualize the flourishes of the mind, by creating unique dream and/or memory sequences that stand out stylistically: The Spring of Huang Jueping (2016), Have A Nice Day (2017) and Manang Biring (2015). All the dreams in these three films are expressions of a desire for another kind of life, or simply for more life.
In Xiaotao Zhang’s The Spring of Huang Jueping, Liang is haunted by his failure to graduate from Chongqing Art Academy and by his father’s memories of participating in the Cultural Revolution. He grew up in Huang Jueping in the 1990s, a very industrial district of Chongqing, a city of 30 million people. Liang look backs on his youth and time as an art student there. These memories are already envisioned in an expressionistic manner, and are interspersed with dreams that are even more so.
It is in these dreams that the past haunts Liang the most, combining both his fear at the time and later frustration of not graduating from the prestigious academy with his father’s memories of the Cultural Revolution. According to director, Xiaotao Zhang, these sequences and his film in general has no political message at all and is simply an artistic impression of his own memories of attending the art academy, and of his father telling him about the Cultural Revolution.
However, it’s hard not to read a clear political statement in one particular dream. In it, Liang is ambushed and chased into a church by an army of portraits of Mao Zedong. For a moment the religious building seems a sanctuary, but then the Mao’s reappear in the pews. Communism as religion. But then they all turn into students trying to complete their final exam at the art academy. Before Liang can take a seat and start his exam, the students turn into fighters of the Cultural Revolution and start shooting at each other.
It’s hard not to see this as a visualization of the ‘purifying’ of thought and education of the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s China, stifling the artistry of Liang to the point where he can’t finish the exam at the art academy. Liang seems to get artistically suffocated by both the doctrinal teachings of the school and the realization that these are a consequence of his father’s actions, while getting suffocated literally by the smog that dominates the landscape of Huang Jueping.
In Liu Jian’s Have A Nice Day, the landscape is possibly even more grimy. In an unnamed small town in Southern China, many people orbit a bag filled with money. A couple dreams of a paradise elsewhere in China named Shangri-La, which they think they’ll get to by robbing a friend of that moneybag. Another Chinese film in which economy and politics crush dreams and haunt people.
The criminal couple has their dream just before their elevator reaches the floor on which they’re about to commit the robbery. The dream is visualized as a karaoke video, including a song and lyrics on the screen, that is chock full of imagery reminiscent of Communist propaganda. It’s a wild and loud stylistic diversion from the drab, almost motionlessly animated world the characters normally inhabit.
The paradise in the dream is one promised by Communist propaganda, while the China the characters live in is more defined by a hopeless and mundane capitalism. In which Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump have become more important cultural references than Mao, who’s only present as a face on the Yuan notes in the bag everyone wants. No wonder they dream of a harmonious ideal state that Communism once promised but never delivered.
Manang Biring has dreams of a very different nature, just like its animation is very different (see picture). The title character is a feisty old lady who’s dying of cancer. She wants to live just long enough until her daughter and grandchildren return to the Philippines from Dubai to visit her for the first time in ten years. Her dreams are not of an idealized future or an imagined past, but are nightmares of a future she doesn’t want. They’re expressions of her fear of impending death. Gloomy expressions of her greatest fear, death. In each of these dreams, she is often enveloped by a black darkness.
One time she looks at herself lying in a grave. Another time she meets a very impressionistically portrayed Death while fainting in a nightclub. She’s there to sell drugs, in order to pay for chemo therapy that might keep her alive long enough to see her family. Although it is death that haunts her in her dreams, once again economics stand in the way of a person achieving what they want in life. No matter how short that life may turn out to last.
Her daughter moved from the Philippines to Dubai for better economic opportunity, and can only travel to her mother at Christmas time. At the same time Manang Birang considered chemotherapy too expensive to even consider battling her cancer. Although these economic pressures do not enter into her dreams in a literal sense, they are the trigger for her dreams of death and doom, from the realization how long she still wants to live – not wanting death to come before Christmas – to the drug dealing in the nightclub that triggers another dream.
The dreams in these three films are very significant towards what each of its main characters struggles with in life, without putting into dialogue just how defining these struggles are. Liang never talks about his artistic stifling or how the Chinese political system haunts him. Even his writer/director Xiaotao Zhang doesn’t talk about this. Yet it is evident in Liang’s dreams. The couple in Have A Nice Day and the eponymous Manang Birang do talk about their fears and desires, but it is their dreams and the stylistic visualization of these feelings that make them palpable. The unreal rendering renders it real.