Monday, December 25, 2006

How Wan-Fô Was Saved (1987)

How Wan-Fô Was Saved (René Laloux, 1987)
French Title: Comment Wang-Fo fut sauvé

Watch René Laloux's animation now with eyes trained to detect the individual strands of fur in a character or the realistic human-like movements of digitized children and your bound for disappointment. Laloux's animation is not about emulation of what's real. Animation is after all a means to release the restrictions of reality. Laloux's most popular feature The Fantastic Planet does not have anatomically accurate beings; it is sci-fi and its world is populated by blue skinned aliens, little humanoid creatures, a host of bizarre fauna, and a compelling environment that stretches the boundaries of human imagination. Laloux has made only three feature length films in his career; most of his other works are short films. How Wan-Fô Was Saved is his favorite among his works. Adapted from a short story of Marguerite Yourcenar, which is also rewritten adaptation of a Chinese parable, How Wan-Fô Was Saved is told in a simplistic yet thought-provoking manner that is quite absent from the mainstream animated cinema of today which seems to be more interested in mundane details than adept storytelling.

The animation is coarse. Laloux is not interested in smooth movements. His characters are limited in their mobility; most of the action is suggested by the narration which supplies a level of psychology to the immobile artworks. Yet with the little movement that is portrayed, the accuracy of human experience is felt. The air of alcohol intoxication is portrayed with deliberate accuracy by Laloux using the most economic of details. From the point of view of the narrator, the apprentice of master painter Wan-Fô, the entire tavern feels alive in a drunken man's perspective. Movement is slower; laughter is louder; visual points of interest are more profound (a lady roasting a pig; his master's finger painting spilled wine; personal musings of the depth of art).

With less than fifteen minutes, Laloux was able to manipulate a story to serve his philosophical interests. He details the master and his apprentice's capture and delivery to the emperor of the Han kingdom. He emotionally paints a background tale on the pale-skinned emperor; his character design establishes himself as a heartless villain, but his back story tells otherwise. He plants an indefatigable sense of loyalty in the apprentice's character for his master and his master's craft, to the point of lethal jealousy for his beautiful wife. In a sense, the characters of How Wan-Fô Was Saved are as alien as the humanoid citizens of The Fantastic Planet, despite being grounded on an exotic yet real Chinese culture, with their warped psychology that befits the constructs of its narrative genre.

The ending is even more brilliant. The apprentice is punished for loyally defending his master; the palace guards behead the defensive apprentice and Laloux does not shy away from the portrayal of violence. He nonchalantly depicts the beheading as mere background noise --- a thud accompanying the animated fall of the headless body. Wan-Fô is ordered to complete a painting that has been bothering the emperor since his childhood days. Again, Laloux insists on immobility. Bystanders and the emperor statically watch the master complete the painting of a vast ocean; then the painting bursts with life, a little boat inches closer and closer to rescue the old master from his fate. Laloux, before he did his first animated short film, worked for a psychiatric ward and has opted to describe his cinema as schizophrenic. In a sense, Laloux achieves an unfathomable excellence in planting imaginative unrealism in his animated works; he allows us to lose ourselves in our imagination and join the old master in his escape from the clutches of a tyrant who misunderstands the value of art.

This post is my contribution to the Short Film Blog-A-Thon hosted in Only the Cinema and Culture Snob.


J.R.D.S. said...

As a long time appreciator of this review, which reviews something and aspects of it that so rarely get reviewed and demonstrates such value in doing so, a couple a YouTube discoveries which may be of interest:
Michel Ocelot's Les Filles de l'égalité (if only historical) and some videoing of a stage adaptation of Yourcenar's Wang-Fô, for an actor and a live painter.

J.R.D.S. said...

(The latter as the title character, I think, that is. The former's tone may get what feels inappropriately kiddy within the context of the tastefulness of the visual design but the working with the need for a player whose skills in something else are more requisite than theirs in acting is notable.)