A hero of a different stripe

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Animated film introduces a loveable, tiger-head hat-wearing protagonist, brimming with traditional Chinese values and characteristics, to a wider audience. 

In China, people often use the Chinese idiom hutou hunao, or "tiger's head and brain", to eulogize a child who looks robust, healthy and energetic. The influence of the tiger-revered in China as the king of all animals-radiates through many aspects of Chinese people's lives, even the decorative pattern of children's headwear.

With the country approaching the Year of the Tiger, Run, Tiger Run!-a feature-length animated movie epitomizing that cultural tradition-will open on the first day of the Lunar New Year, which will fall on Tuesday, making it a fitting way to celebrate the festival.

Set during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the film centers on Hudun (an adorable nickname inserted with the Chinese character for tiger), an 11-year-old orphan who aspires to become an established biaoshi-an armed escort for wealthy travelers and their property on treacherous journeys.

Hudun manages to shake off a stereotypical bias that makes people view him as merely a troublemaker with the help of a legendary former swordsman. The unlikely duo fight off a powerful gang of bandits who are trying to steal a valuable item that the pair are charged to protect.

Hudun-who always wears his signature tiger-head hat-has already accumulated a sizable fan base before he even makes his screen debut.

According to the movie's co-directors, Zou Yi and Stanley Tsang, the first short video work featuring the character-showing a vivid imitation of a crosstalk performer-was released on short video platform Douyin, the domestic iteration of TikTok, in October 2018.

Around 370 comedic short videos on the platform, from the character playing with his animal friend, a red-skinned pig, to naughty routines with other martial artists, have helped Hudun to obtain an online fan base of more than 10 million followers, which laid the foundation for the film.

"We dreamed of creating a lovable child character, with typical Chinese features, since the very beginning, so we conducted a lot of research to figure out which traditional or cultural elements would be most representative of Chinese children," says Zou.

The tiger-head hat, a traditional piece of headwear, caught their attention. "In ancient China, people worshiped the tiger and believed a tiger-head hat would protect infants and young children by warding off evil spirits. So, we believed such a hat should be used as a key element in the film," says Zou.

Also a diehard fan of iconic Hong Kong star Stephen Chow's comedy movies, Tsang-a native of Hong Kong-says he was impressed by Chow starring as hooligan Wei Xiaobao, appearing as a storyteller wearing a tiger-head hat, in the 1992 classic comedy Royal Tramp.

As a tribute to Chow, and to the epitome of the golden era of Hong Kong cinema, the animated film Run, Tiger Run! includes a scene in which Hudun acts as a storyteller to recount a legendary tale about five heroic martial artists, drawing an engrossed audience in the center of a bustling street.

One of the film's big draws centers around its compelling recollection of biaoshi, an age-old profession existing for around 1,000 years before it saw an unstoppable decline near the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

With a strong interest in figuring out more details in the history of the profession, Zou traveled to Pingyao and Qikou, two ancient towns in North China's Shanxi province, where several well-preserved buildings were once assigned to such security details as offices and residences.

The main creators also visited the Hexi Corridor and Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu province, seeking inspiration for an epic scene that features a group of ruthless bandits piloting a ship-like vehicle to chase Hudun and his partner, the swordsman Yang, in a desert.

China's traditional values highlight that a promise should be kept, and Zou says the filmmakers believe biaoshi embodies the noble Chinese spirit, and he wishes such a message can be conveyed overseas, enabling China's traditional culture to reach more foreigners.

Zou reveals a touching story behind the scene-the production had been struggling, and some of the team's top animators volunteered to reduce their salaries during the toughest period of the past two years.

"All of us have a passion and love for animation. A qualified animator is not a worker on an assembly line, but the creator of a new soul," says Zou.

"Most of our animators also know how to act, which has helped them to obtain a profound and distinctive understanding of their characters, making their work more appealing," he says.

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