World Festival of Animated Film /
5 to 10 June 2023
World Festival of Animated Film / 5 to 10 June 2023
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Murakami’s Stories, Songs of Patriarchy and Japanese Monsters: Grand Competition - Feature Film 2023

Animafest Zagreb 2023 Grand Competition Feature Film is an exclusive, thematically and stylistically diverse competition, selected by artistic director Daniel Šuljić, whose central screenings will take place under the clear sky of the Tuškanac Summer Stage.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Pierre Földes, a French-American composer, painter and director of Hungarian origin who became famous for his music for video games (e.g. the Hitman series), films and the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, is an adaptation of six stories by Haruki Murakami with an episodic but framed structure in the pastiche of this master’s works. The plot begins in Tokyo where, after a major earthquake (psychological rupture), a bank clerk Komura is abandoned by his news-stricken wife Kyoko, a focally relatively suppressed character whose visions give the film its title. Komura is further threatened with termination of employment, and his cat disappears, so he travels to Hokkaido to deliver a package of unknown contents. His colleague Katagiri, on the other hand, finds a large frog in the apartment (a fantasy of social relevance) which, quoting classics, asks for the clerk’s help in saving the city from a giant worm (the embodiment of the rage of modern man and the destructive forces of nature). 3D motion capture of real actors is inserted into a 2D film of pale, pastel, subdued colours with an airy background serving ephemerality (passers-by are practically invisible ‘ghosts’). The film of surrealist oneiric, magical-realistic logic, which combines visual literalism and symbolism, takes place in Murakami’s favourite liminal spaces and shows urban alienation, existential dread, anxiety, insecurity, emotional numbness and the banality of everyday life, but also humour, eros and the search for closeness and meaning. The connection between sleep (into which the characters often fall) and waking life is direct and formative, while the issue of corporate rationalisations and the media is relegated to the film’s periphery. The dialogically rich Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, shaped after its literary models, is a work filled with references to both high and popular culture and unfolds in the slow-reading rhythm of a rainy Sunday afternoon with an acoustic accompaniment of smooth jazz.

Signe Baumane presents her second feature-length work, My Love Affair with Marriage, a partly autobiographical, feminist-satirical musical about the maturation of the Latvian artist Zelma through two marriages and social systems and multiple partnerships. From Sakhalin and Riga, through Moscow to Toronto, we follow the story of love and patriarchy, peer, marital and institutional violence, sex and gender, identity and conventions, pressures and conformity, ideology and individualism. Sketchy, slightly caricature 2D characters (pencil on paper) often shown in profile, move against detailed stop-motion 3D backgrounds made of paper mache. This process (the purpose of which is to point out gaps in identity, expectations and desires) already seen in the author’s earlier successful work Rocks in My Pockets (2014) is here complemented by educational behavioural-neurological segments in which a personified brain cell explains the biochemical processes of the heroine’s emotional reactions. The distinctive animation of these segments, that ruminate on the issue of free choice, is made by Yajun Shi, while Baumane herself, during the making of the film, devoted seven years to studying neurology, biology and anthropology of love in order to find a complement in playful scientific discourse to her uncompromisingly ironic and political deconstruction of romantic myths and femininity that derive from them. The subjective-objective and private-sociological juxtaposition of fantasy and down-to-earth reality, indoctrination and unrestrained character (the heroine often transforms into unrestrained animal form of a cat) and the mocking depiction of love and difficult themes are the fundamental axis that leads the film into an indirect discussion with the misogynistic past of feature animation. The main voice role is performed by the Polish-American actress Dagmara Domińczyk, famous for the series Succession, while the 24 songs featured in the film, among which the winged choir of village harpies singing about submission, marriage and childbirth are especially striking, were composed by Kristian Sensini.

White Plastic Sky (dir. Tibor Bánóczki, Sarolta Szabó) is a post-apocalyptic SF of a Logan-Soylent premise, with a stronger environmental subtext of Silent Running and the psychological drama of Solaris. In addition to the classic dystopias of the 1970s, this Hungarian-Slovak work also features mythological reflections of Apollo and Daphne and typical sci-fi tropes such as the mad scientist. But despite the aforementioned commonplaces, this impressively monumental and intimate, atmospheric and melancholic film still manages to be a completely realised and actualised, brilliantly designed and relevant, emotional and poetic parable in the best tradition of the genre. In the year 2123, Budapest is the last surviving Hungarian city thanks to its dome and a social contract in which people hand over their bodies to the Plantation on their 50th birthday where they are gradually transformed into trees with edible leaves. Nora, the 32-year-old wife of psychiatrist Stefan, cannot accept her son’s death, so she voluntarily surrenders herself to the Plantation, from which Stefan will try to save her. Ethical dilemmas, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, bodily autonomy, dealing with loss, views on the end of civilization and allusions to current Hungarian family policies are some of the themes of the story, which is at the same time an ode to love (humanity) and beauty (self-renewing nature). In accordance with scientific-speculative principles devoid of unfounded optimism, White Plastic Sky is also a parable about children (new generations, evolutionary development) whose blossoming is hindered by the selfishness of their parents. Despite the relatively slow rhythm of the discovery of its defamiliarized world, the film manages to preserve the tension by putting an individual life and the entirety of humanity at stake, with a very immediate layer of (trans)humanity. With the help of geologists, meteorologists and botanists, the author wrote, drew, and over the course of seven years made the film in a combined technique of computer 3D animation and classic manual rotoscopy. Its 3D animation enabled extraordinary world-building with a fresh depiction of the metropolis as a combination of social realist and cyberpunk-secession influences.

One of the most important contemporary Spanish authors, comic artist and animator Alberto Vázquez became famous with the anthropomorphic character Birdboy from the short film and graphic novel of the same name and debuted in Zagreb with his feature-length Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children (2016). In the following years, Animafest also screened Unicorn Blood and Decorado in different programmes, as well as Homeless Home, which stands out stylistically from this opus. Violence with elements of splatter, disdain for diversity, suprematism, low impulses, family relationships and traumas, subconsciousness and loneliness, drugs, but also warm emotions, environmental messages, humour and strong advocacy of freedom are the characteristic features of Vázquez’s work, visible also in his culmination - Unicorn Wars. A sort of extension of the previous Unicorn Blood, Unicorn Wars is an anti-war film with black humour that mostly stands up against militaristic, cultural and religious fascism, indoctrination and collective hatred through the story of conscripted bear brothers who, after being trained, embark on a ‘Vietnamese’ forest battle against unicorns. In addition to the perverse social system of elaborate mythology and permanent crisis led by cynical officers and clergy, Vázquez also finds the roots of evil and the descent into madness in family pathology, i.e. childhood of the protagonist. In this shocking fantasy, the psychedelically vibrant “innocence, beauty and sweetness” rendered in shades of magenta, pink, and kerosene and neon blue are torn to pieces, but the explicit violence similar to that of the Happy Tree Friends series is here not only for its own sake, but in the service of an anti-war message. The juxtaposition of chubby, big-eyed characters and their disturbing deeds in a Miyazaki-like landscape is an authorial process that reaches its limits in Unicorn Wars because, unlike Vázquez’s earlier films, they are completely devoid of hope, so at their end, a man stands up against the mud. Watership Down, Full Metal Jacket and Princess Mononoke can be added toVázquez’s established inspirations (Apocalypse Now, Bambi, The Bible), as well as numerous other anti-war and environmentalist classics.

Monstrous-spooky Japanese anime is represented by the world premiere of the psychological body horror Feast of Amrita by independent artist Saku Sakamoto, whose feature-length debut Aragne: Sign of Vermillion was previously screened at Animafest in 2019. Feast of Amrita takes place before Sing of Vermillion, so fans will find it particularly interesting to follow the experiences of high school girls Tamahi, Aki and Yu (with famous Japanese names Maaya Uchida and Kana Hanazawa among the voice talents) in an already familiar apartment complex where time and space are bent into a monstrous parallel reality under the influence of an obscure scientific experiment. As in the previous film, Sakamoto, who made a name for himself with digital effects on films by other authors (e.g. Ghost in the Shell 2), gladly uses hints of a hand-held camera to convey uncertainty and anxiety, while idiosyncratic computer animation of the backgrounds and lens flare lighting outside of the genre stereotypes compensate for a certain lack of fluidity of movement. In his design of scary scenes, Sakamoto’s inspirations come from the genre of biomechanical horror (with an emphasis on ‘entomological corporeality’), while the penetration of unknown evil into the mind evokes folk fiction, and the premise itself is close to an SF story about the search for immortality. In the gradual construction of horror through being caught in a time-space loop, the intended viewer might notice certain logical inconsistencies (e.g. a startled schoolgirl passively waits for the spectre to pierce her next), but these are the conventions of Japanese horror incorporated into a complete allegorical work about growing up, embracing change and evolution (whatever it may be). It should be warned, however, that the film directly touches on the issue of juvenile suicides, so it is intended exclusively for adult viewers.

The Chinese film No Changes Have Taken in Our Life (dir. Jingwei Xu) about a sousaphonist (a type of tuba) named Ba, who returns to his hometown with the instrument ‘wrapped around his body’ after his studies, was inspired by the author’s childhood in a sleepy, provincial industrial hub. The juxtaposition of the hero’s interests, goals and questions with the prosaic life in an unemotional and alienated tone is the starting point of the work, in which the perception, dreams and aspirations of a folk artist in search of work collide with the dullness of his environment and its inhabitants (friend, ex-girlfriend, father and his new partner). Hero’s unusual instrument is in deep contrast with this artistically disinterested setting, which gives the film a humorous-absurd tone. No Changes Have Taken in Our Life is also a film with very interesting framing, cuts and mise-en-scène in which the characters rarely occupy central positions, and are most often shown in profile or unnaturally frontal and in semi-long shots that indicate their insignificance. Although it is a 2D film, the slow and slightly unnatural movements of its characters on beautifully drawn backgrounds have a collage-like quality. The film’s score, performed on the mandolin, an instrument not usually found in the Chinese cultural circle, adds to the defamiliarizing effect, but the film’s small town, its ‘persistence’ and the habits of its residents could just as well take place somewhere in the instrument’s original Mediterranean birthplace.