Adults as Audience: A Review of The Guardian

By Shaopeng Chen

Historically speaking, Chinese animated films have always targeted children and ignored their entertainment appeal for adults. At the same time, the Chinese cultural authorities required animated works to be both instructive and interesting. Weihua Wu argues that animation in China is “the practice of hidden education in an appealing form,” which suggests that Chinese animated filmmaking involves performing entertainment with a strong educational orientation.[1] As a result, most studios choose to premiere Chinese animated films around the Chinese Lunar New Year festival season, International Children’s Day (June 1st), and the summer film season due to the fact that the primary audience—preschool and school-aged children—are off school and free to watch animated films. The Chinese 2D animated action fantasy feature The Guardian (Dahufa, 2017) debuted on July 10, received lukewarm box office returns (87.1 million Chinese yuan compared to 20 million production costs).[2] However, unlike the overwhelming majority of its competitors in the summer season, The Guardian does not target child audiences. Instead, the film clearly aims to attract adult viewers from its production to promotion. The Guardian also triggered heated discussions about its adult-oriented aesthetics in the context of animation creation in China.

From my point of view, The Guardian marks an important milestone in the history of Chinese cinema animation. A dark fantasy set in the fictional “Peanut Town,” The Guardian is a major change of subject matter and creative principle compared to its domestically made predecessors. It is indeed surprising to see a completely adult-oriented production on the silver screen, considering the child-oriented Chinese animation market.

What may seem unsurprising, however, is that The Guardian was written and directed by Busifan, one of the few auteur-style Chinese animation directors with a distinctive aesthetic. Busifan (aka Yang Zhigang) is a highly acclaimed Chinese animation practitioner known for his identifiable signature style. He started his career as an independent Flash animator who debuted as the director and screenwriter of the Flash animation series Black Bird (Heiniao, 2004, 7 episodes, 5 minutes running time). The following years saw the online exhibition of Busifan’s subsequent works such as Xiaomi’s Forest (Xiaomi de senlin, 2009, 16 episodes, 10 minutes running time) and Mr Miao (Miao xiansheng, 2014 to present) series. The 2D animated short Valley of White Birds (Bainiaogu, 2017), co-directed by Busifan and Renlang (founder of Wolf Smoke Studio), won the Junior Jury Award for Short Film at the 2017 Annecy International Animation Film Festival and was longlisted for the 2018 Oscars. Busifan has already demonstrated his talent in the above works, which bear the marks of the filmmaker’s personal style such as serious and dark subject matter, extremely simplistic character design, and the application of traditional Chinese ink painting in background design. 

The Guardian was Busifan’s animated feature directorial debut, and also best epitomizes the director’s visions of creative elements in film and style of directing. The film tells the story of how the enslaved and oppressed peanut people (the residents of Peanut Town), with the help of the protagonist The Guardian (literally “the great guardian” in Chinese), rebel against a cruel, greedy ruler named Ouyang Ji’an and his hired thugs.

In general, The Guardian creatively mixes genres and artistic tropes like Chinese martial arts films and American film noir, for the purpose of constructing a hybrid and signature animation aesthetic. Moreover, the film, like Busifan’s previous works, strives to create an atmosphere of mystery that is full of contrast and collision. For example, along with the sound of sweet birdsong, the prologue of The Guardian features a sequence of cloudy and misty mountains in a distinct ink-painting style. However, The Guardian subsequently encounters a levitating huge black peanut, paper eyes scattered on the ground, flesh-colored humanoid ant-monkeys bursting out of the soil, and flying worm-like flowers. As the story unfolds, two creepy noseless peanut killers who are subordinates of Ouyang Ji’an appear, characterized by the blooming flying worm-like flowers above their heads and faces on their backs (Figure 1). They are neatly killed by the protagonist, a skilled martial artist with supernatural abilities. This narrative sequence shows the conflicts hidden in the tranquility, which contrasts with the pastoral country setting of the background design.

Figure 1: Opening Sequence of The Guardian

The sense of contradiction is also reflected in the character design and establishment. The director Busifan recollects that “although we place a quick label on characters (good or evil) that would define their characteristics, absolute and inherent hero or villain does not exist” during the pre-production process.[3] For example, leading characters in Chinese action fantasy animated features often share a similar tall, thin, elegant and handsome silhouette based on past tradition. As suggested in the above sequence, The Guardian is a martial arts expert. However, he looks like a traditional Chinese pudding-like ninja, a triangle-shaped little man who is characterized by his large round eyes, orange cheeks, and red cloak (Figure 2). The protagonist’s adorable appearance forms a sharp contrast with his mature personality, philosophical monologue and supernatural abilities.

In the story, The Guardian’s motivation is to find and protect the prince of Yiwei Kingdom who has run away from his destiny of inheriting the throne. The Guardian accidentally enters Peanut Town, where the prince is temporarily staying, thus triggering successive adventures. The visual design of the prince was inspired by a renowned Chinese actor Xu Jinjiang. In other words, the former is the animated version of Xu, who features rugged looks with thick black beard, dashing eyebrows, strong personality, and an athletic build on the silver screen (Figure 3). Meanwhile, the character of the prince is a man of subtle and refined sensibility under his leathery exterior. All he wants is to engage in painting without external interruption. The Guardian finds the escaped prince as the narrative develops. Surprisingly, again, the seemingly gentle prince asks The Guardian to promise him that he will have the freedom of painting naked women in the imperial harem as a precondition for succeeding to the throne. That is, the prince of Yiwei Kingdom is a character full of complex, paradoxical personality traits. Other examples of contradiction in character building include the superficially adorable, seemingly harmless, but evil old man Ouyang Ji’an, who in reality is outwardly strong but inwardly weak, as well as the thuggish executioner Pao Mao, who always struggles with his anxiety and frustrating emotions.

Figure 2: The Protagonist The Guardian

Figure 3: The Prince of Yiwei Kingdom (Left) and Xu Jinjiang (Right)

The Guardian, a bloody and violent adventure story, was the first ever Chinese cinema animation that has a self-imposed “PG-13” rating. China still does not have an official film classification system. There exist a variety of explicit and implicit “red lines” for the production of Chinese motion pictures. Baichen Chen observes that Chinese filmmakers must submit their screenplays to cultural authorities for approval before shooting, but there is no guarantee that the finished work will pass the final censorship even if the screenplay is permitted.[4] In some cases, films that failed to pass the Chinese censorship were unable to play in China for unclear reasons. Thus, Chinese filmmakers always endeavor to balance the censorship criteria, market, and audience demands. This phenomenon has been especially evident in the field of animation production because the primary audience of animated works is children. Animators act with extreme caution, like they are treading on thin ice. As a result, made-in-China animated films are always characterized by overly simplistic and childish visual styles and storylines.  

The Guardian‘s self-declaration of being PG-13 has no practical significance, serving no other purpose than marketing by labelling itself an adult-oriented work. The Guardian, in other words, differentiates itself from the child-oriented Chinese cinema animations in various aspects. The film is full of bloody action scenes, surreal and weird characters, and nonsensical dialogue and monologues, typical of Busifan’s style. This is a rather bold, even risky move with uncertain outcome regarding the divergence between online and offline regulation of content creation. Chinese animation enthusiasts actively debate how and why an obviously adult-oriented animated film like The Guardian could pass the censorship: a “miracle” in China. In fact, the production company did have to cut “problematic” plots (shortened from 120 minutes to 95 minutes) in order to pass censorship, though it seems impossible to identify exactly how The Guardian was allowed to appear in cinemas. The public screening of The Guardian broke adult viewers’ stereotypes about domestically made animation to a certain extent. Busifan also said in an interview that “this work (The Guardian) itself was produced largely for experimental purpose. I tried to break something in people’s mind such as Chinese audiences’ inherent impression of domestically made animations.”[5]

As an oblique political metaphor, The Guardian explicitly aims at attracting adult audiences by poignantly satirizing the rulers’ way of taking advantage of people and preventing people from rebelling. The film has clear ideological dimensions that engage with themes of dystopia, fascism, totalitarianism and collective unconsciousness. Popular dystopian motion pictures like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Blade Runner (1982), The End of Evangelion (1997) and V for Vendetta (2005) have become cult cultural phenomena. Nevertheless, this genre is rarely seen in Chinese-language live action films, let alone in animation that primarily aims at serving children. The Guardianis the first domestically made dystopian-themed animated film, which establishes a precedent against audience stereotype. As mentioned earlier, The Guardian enters Peanut Town for the purpose of searching for and protecting the prince. He fortuitously finds out that the dictator Ouyang Ji’an brutally controls the peanut people both physically and spiritually. Ouyang employ peanut killers to hunt down and kill the “infected” residents. He creates rumors that the executed people are plague spreaders who grow poisonous mushrooms in their brains. In fact, the victims are killed merely because their brains contain a valuable obsidian. In the novel 1984, George Orwell depicts a fictional language “Newspeak” to “standardize” and “purify” thoughts. In a similar vein, Ouyang directly alleges that speaking is an incurable disease that festers and then bursts throughout the body from the mouth, a much more radicalized approach. Thus, the peanut people, who make a living by eating “ant-monkeys,” are not allowed to communicate with each other. They are attached with fake eyes and fake mouths. In other words, the ignorant peanut people are psychologically manipulated by the ruler. They are unconscious masses who live in a dystopian totalitarian land who fall into bewilderment with their obscure ontological status (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The Peanut People

In conclusion, there is certainly a lot to praise in The Guardian, and it is no doubt partly a matter of taste how individual adult viewers respond to the debut of an auteurist style dystopian story in Chinese animation. This is of course not to say that the film is perfect; for example, Busifan’s cinematic language often lacks diversity, the duration of a single shot is excessively long in some sequences, lacking camera movement. The attractiveness of The Guardian, to some extent, falls flat with illogical plot developments. This is primarily because the protagonist’s garrulous interior monologue serves as the motivation of the story rather than a reasonable inciting incident. However, these small defects cannot obscure the film’s great virtues. The Guardian gains its significance by exploring the possibilities of an adult-oriented production, which is an adventurous and inventive practice that changes the audience’s perception of Chinese animation to some extent. Chinese viewers subsequently witnessed the screening of a 2D animated dark comedy Have a Nice Day (Da shijie) in 2018. Directed by Liu Jian, a renowned independent Chinese animation director based in Nanjing, the film is characterized by its politically sensitive theme and its bleak and realistic portrayal of social reality. Like The Guardian, Have a Nice Day passed official censorship and was released in mainland China, an unexpected miracle. The new trend of adult-oriented, domestically made animated films shows how the Chinese animation industry has developed over the last few years, which is an area worthy of further study and investigation. 

[1] Weihua Wu, Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2017): 52.  

[2]The Guardian (2017),” at Endata, 2020, accessed Jul 17, 2020 .

[3] “An Interview with Busifan, the Director of Animated Film The Guardian,” Xinhua Net, 2017, accessed Jul 20, 2020 .

[4]Baichen Chen, “Censorship,” in Historical Dictionary of Chinese Cinema, ed. Tan Ye and Yun Zhu (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 27. 

[5] “An Interview with Busifan, the Director of Animated film The Guardian,” Xinhua Net, 2017, accessed Jul 21, 2020 .

Bio:

Dr Shaopeng Chen is a lecturer of animation at School of Arts, Southeast University (China). He received his PhD degree in Film Studies from University of Southampton (UK). Previously, He taught animation production courses at Nanjing Normal University of Special Education in China. In 2010, his paint-on-glass-animated short film The Pipe was being included in Animated Short Film Creative Practice (2010), which is the selected teaching material in Jiangsu Province (China). This film also won Excellence Award in The Third Animation and Comics Design Match for College Students in Nanjing City. In 2012 and 2017, he travelled to Japan and Croatia respectively to investigate the local animation and comics industry. He has written a number of articles on Chinese animated film, Chinese film industry and Chinese film marketing in both Chinese and English languages. His research interests include style of animation character, animation aesthetics, film industry in China, government policy of Chinese creative industries and new generation cinema animation in China.

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