Monday, July 23, 2018

Fantasia ’18: Da Hu Fa

He is short, pear-shaped, and scares the willies out of the Chinese film authorities. Although approved for distribution, the first animated adventures of this rotund royal protector reportedly irked the powers-that-be when it voluntarily imposed a PG-13 rating on itself (presumably, they do not say “thanks for the adversity” in the trailer and one-sheet for nothing). His clashes with a violent and irrational totalitarian regime probably did not help either. Potentially both a cult favorite and a cause célèbre, Busifan (a.k.a. Yang Zhigang)’s thunderbolt-out-of-the-blue debut feature Da Hu Fa (trailer here) screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Da Hu Fa, the Grand Protector of Yiwei (a.k.a. The Guardian), doesn’t look like much, but he is surprisingly lethal with his steely cane. Just ask the wood-cutter ruffians lying dead by the side of the road. He has come to Peanuttown in search of the prince and heir apparent, whom he has sworn to protect. Alas, the absconded prince is wildly irresponsible, making life difficult for Da Hu Fa.

Alas, Peanuttown is no place for the artistically inclined prince. The inhabitants do indeed look like peanuts, but more fundamentally, all signs of individuality seem to have been beaten out of them. Wisely, his royal highness has holed up outside of town, where he has befriended one of the few independent-thinking Peanuts. Eventually, even the prince will agree it would probably be wise to move along, but by that time they attract the attention of the Peanuts’ malevolent oppressors.

It is hard to say whether DHF is more or less subversive than it sounds, judging solely by Western standards. People revolt and rebel all the time in our films, without it meaning very much. China is different. Frankly, it feels like Busifan expects the absurd and arbitrary nature of the repressive regime to resonate with Chinese audiences, more so even than the violence and paranoia.

Regardless of its allegorical intentions, the world is still wildly disconcerting. In many ways, it is like the Chinese analog of Western fantasy realms modeled on Medieval Europe. Peanuttown looks as if it could have come off a centuries old scroll painting, but firearms (and firing squads) are a daily fact of life there. In any event, the terraced roofs provide a nifty setting for chase sequences and fight scenes. Visually, it is often lush and cinematic looking, roly-poly Da Hu Fa notwithstanding.

In fact, DHF works smashingly well when judged merely by the criteria of martial arts movies. Da Hu Fa is the underdog of underdogs, yet he kicks some serious butt. The film might be a protest against oppression and injustice, but it zings along at a full gallop. For a first-time film, it is hugely impressive, because it isn’t merely a pointed cinematic statement with acidic subtext. It is also jolly good fun. Very highly recommended for animation fans, Da Hu Fa screens again tomorrow (7/24), at this year’s Fantasia, in sunny Montreal.