'I Am What I Am' captures realistic approach for Chinese animators

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, December 19, 2021
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A new animated feature about three teenagers who try to reshape their destiny by learning China's traditional lion dance has received widespread public acclaim for its innovative storytelling technique, which takes a more realistic approach rather than focusing on Chinese mythology or fairy tales.

A film still from "I Am What I Am." [Photo courtesy of Beijing Cheering Times Culture & Entertainment]

The three friends, led by Ah Juan, are classic underdogs – left-behind children and the victims of bullying in a rural area of south China's Guangdong province. However, after meeting a lion dancer who inspires the trio to enter a competition in urban Guangzhou and finding a retired lion dance master to study under, things are looking up. That is until an unforgiving reality forces Ah Juan to become a migrant worker and support his family before the passion is finally rekindled and he once again pursues his dreams.

During several advanced screenings before its nationwide release on Dec. 17, audiences were struck by the themes and emotional purity of the coming-of-age animation. Rave reviews quickly poured in, with some critics calling it the "animated film of the year" in China.

Sun Haipeng, the film's director revealed at the Dec. 15 premiere that "I Am What I Am" took him and his crew two years to make. "I have always wanted to do a worldly animated feature about our real life. I love these worldly things, like the lanes and alleys, and the rural villages. And I remember lion dances performed at festive events, that were so beautiful, colorful, and folk. It can be either cute or domineering, with brilliant movements. That inspired me to do a film about lion dance."

His vision impressed Zhang Miao, the veteran film producer who is responsible for some of China's highest-grossing films including "Wolf Warrior 2," "Hi, Mom," "My People, My Homeland," "The Wandering Earth" and "Dying to Survive." Nevertheless, when the project was initially announced, many doubted its success. 

Director Sun Haipeng (L) and producer Zhang Miao speak with the audience during the premiere of "I Am What I Am" at a theater in Beijing, Dec. 15, 2021. [Photo courtesy of Beijing Cheering Times Culture & Entertainment]

Zhang recently said he was overwhelmed by the positive feedback following the advanced screenings and was relieved to know that people love the film after he and his team spent two years working on it. "China's film market is so big. It's normal to have a film that can gross 1 billion yuan. But it is still rare for an animated film to pass that milestone. And the animation genre particularly lacks successful original realistic stories."

In terms of box office performance, previously successful Chinese animations have predominantly been those adapted from traditional Chinese mythological icons like the Monkey King and Nezha, as well as animal cartoons for young children such as Boonie Bears. 

"The director and I got some sort of teen spirit when we started this 24-month journey. At the beginning, we just didn't know how this journey would end up. But we eventually leaped with all our strength, like Ah Juan during the climax in the film. You can see our mission and enthusiasm for the film."

An IMAX poster for "I Am What I Am." [Image courtesy of IMAX China]

In attendance at the premiere was Yu Zhou, a fellow animator and co-founder and president of Light Chaser Animation Studios, who admitted that he was so excited to see the film. "This is a breakthrough animation, it opens a new world for China's animated films."

Another audience member who is a third-generation inheritor of two intangible cultural heritages wept, saying "I was so much into this film because I knew too well about how hard it is to promote Chinese traditional culture."

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