Saturday, May 21, 2022

HRWFF ’22: Eternal Spring

State media only airs propaganda favorable to the regime in power, because that is its only reason for being. However, for one brief night in 2002, the local CCP-controlled TV station in Changchun broadcasted some contrary points of view. They had been hacked. As a result, comic artist Daxiong was forced to leave China, even though he was not involved. He was a Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa) practitioner, just like the signal hijackers, so he faced similarly harsh reprisals. Understandably, he had rather mixed feelings about the “hijacking,” but he came to respect the hijackers’ motivations and sacrifices while designing the animation of Jason Loftus’ documentary Eternal Spring, which screens as part of the 2022 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

If the opening round-up scene were a live-action tracking shot rather than animation, it would have film geeks screaming comparisons to Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. It still will knock viewers’ socks off. Yet, it also serves an important function, illustrating the ruthlessness of the police crackdown following the broadcast signal intrusion.

In more traditionally filmed scenes, Daxiong meets with a handful of survivors now living abroad, for feedback on his rendering of the characters and the city of Changchun at that time.
Eternal Spring has garnered comparisons to Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, but the animation Daxiong designs is much more stylish and the true story Loftus helps tell is far more tense and gripping. Flee looked perfectly fine, but clearly the animation began and ended in a computer, whereas viewers can easily tell Eternal Spring started with Daxiong’s pen and paper.

There are several contemporary scenes featuring Daxiong and the survivors, but the overwhelming majority of the documentary animates the planning, execution, and aftermath of the signal intrusion. We come to care about the figures involved, especially the working-class trucker appropriately dubbed “Big Truck,” even though we know they will face unjust fates. Tellingly, the one event the doc only mentions in passing is the trial itself, because why bother? It held no suspense or uncertainty.

However, Loftus, Daxiong, and company brilliantly recreate the climate of paranoia and the constant bombardment of anti-Falun Gong state propaganda all practitioners faced. They create a suspenseful and tragic chronicle of the fateful events, but it also has a more pressing point. These events happened in 2002, well before Xi Jinping assumed dictatorial power. However, Xi has clearly applied many of the tactics Jiang Zemin wielded against Falun Gong practitioners to now target Muslim Uyghurs and increasingly Tibetan Buddhists. All faiths are under fire in the PRC. The Falun Gong practitioners were just the canary in the coalmine, whom the West ignored.

Regardless, the audience will not feel like they are being lectured to during
Eternal Spring, because it is such a dramatically compelling case study of conscientious resistance to oppression. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss its relevancy to recent events in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. This is truly first-class nonfiction filmmaking and an urgently defiant film. Very highly recommended, Eternal Spring screens Monday (5/23) at Film at Lincoln Center and Tuesday (5/24) at the IFC Center (as well as digitally through 5/27) as part of this year’s HRW Film Fest.