The Question of Hong Kong Identity in My Life As McDull

By Lokyi Tsoi

My Life As McDull is the first attempt to make a full-length animation film of the McDull series, as a collaboration with director Toe Yuen, screenplay writer Brian Tse, and story writer Alice Mak (Fig 1). Released in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year 2001-2002, the film achieved remarkable success, grossing a total of HK$14 million at the Hong Kong box office as well as enjoying growing recognition overseas through a year of being on the festival circuit.[1]It received numerous film awards, including the Crystal Award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.[2] It is often labelled as the first animated film that is 100% “made in Hong Kong,” a claim based on its authenticity and ability to reveal the essence of the “Hong Kong spirit.” Yet, in what ways does it differ from other animations (for example A Chinese Ghost Story, 1997) that are also made in Hong Kong? 

Figure 1: McDull and his classmates practising for the Bun Scrambling Contest held in Cheung Chau Island

The original story of McDull was first written as a side character in the cartoon series “McMug,” by Alice Mak and Brian Tse. As time went on, McDull turned out to be a more interesting character with a simple-minded and optimistic personality. After years of building a Hong Kong fanbase, the comic was turned into an animated TV series, which was shown on the subscription Hong Kong Interactive Television channel. Eventually, it resulted in the making of My Life As McDull, a film that can be described as a culmination of the animated TV series, as a film with “a string of episodes” that are selected from the TV series.

According to Hu Tze Yue, the author of Hong Kong Animation: My Life as McDull, the film My Life is different from A Chinese Ghost Story because of its production process.[3] Part of the animation from A Chinese Ghost Story was subcontracted to a Japanese animation studio, Triangle Staff, for enhancement and guidance. In contrast, My Life as McDull is the first Hong Kong animation film that had a production crew with 100% Hong Kong people. In addition, it did not fall into either the Disney style of animation nor the Japanese anime style. It is what Hu calls“a postmodern recall and a re-affirmation of a Hong Kong self, fragmented as it were in the multivalent complexities of an administrative territory.”[4] More accurately, the film’s narrative as well as characters are all tied up with bits and pieces of cultural references only meant for Hong Kong audiences to understand (Fig 2). It was up to the creators like Brian Tse, Alice Mak, and Toe Yuen,who grew up and spent most of their lives in Hong Kong, to determine the film’s focus. Though some critics argue that the politics of localness and powerlessness in the McDull series have become repressed and restrained throughout the years, in the end, it is still undoubted that the series has created its own world through the use of language, visuals, and contrast.[5] After all, the character of McDull still has a huge number of Hong Kong fans to the present day.

Figure 2: A portrayal of many Hong Kong children walking to school every day

As the name suggests, the narrative of My Life is pretty straightforward. Through dividing the film into a series of inter-titled episodes, which respectively are “My School,” “My Life,” “My Mother,” “My Ideal World” and “I Have Grown Up,” My Life describes McDull’s growth from birth to adulthood. As Hu highlighted, McDull and his mother Mrs Mak were portrayed as the working-class citizens who struggle to survive in the “urban jungle” of Hong Kong. Unlike Ghost in the Shell (1995), a film that takes Hong Kong as an environmental reference for its futuristic landscape—where cyborgs and humanoids were seen living amongst neon lights and skyscrapers—My Life portrays the actual life of a normal Hong Kong citizen: eating fan herb instead of dim sum as their normal meals, and going to the Peak instead of the Maldives for their holiday trips.[6] 

Figure 3: Mrs Mak and her colleagues singing the song“1,2,3,4,5,6,7… No pain no gain!”

Aesthetically, My Life as McDull deliberately shows the plebeian areas of the Hong Kong landscape, such as Tai Kok Chui: a cramped, industrialized and fussy district where McDull and Mrs Mak live, study and work. Unlike the scene of Victoria Peak, where the buildings are drawn in relatively the same approach along with the characters, the Tai KokTsui neighbourhood is portrayed in photorealistic fidelity to reinforce disparity. The juxtaposition of the two-dimensional hand-drawn characters with bright pastel colours with the three-dimensionalenvironment forms a strong contrast. The flat, uniform colours of the characters with no gradations, shadows or halftones create an apparent illusion where cartoons exist in the real world. Scenes such as figure 1, 2 and 3 also demonstrate and emphasize the realism of space: the speeding traffic, overlapping highways and layered skyscrapers are all familiar sights throughout Hong Kong. 

As Kimburley Choi and Steve Fore highlighted, “The signature graphic style of the McDull animation is basedon an aggressive pursuit of visual heterogeneity.”[7] In other words, the visual style of the McDull series does not follow the traditional narrative pattern, but instead pursues a non-naturalistic way to merge both impressionistic, dreamlike worlds (the Victoria Peak scene) with a realistic, photographic and authentic world (the Hong Kong landscape). The scholars reference Deleuze and Guattari, claiming that the narrative and visual style of McDull series can be described as a rhizome, which allows multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in representation and interpretation: “Deleuze and Guattari articulate here the contours of a hybridized environment of people, spaces, movements, actions, and ideas, and it is a description that also usefully describes the aesthetic logic underpinning the hybridized visual strategy of the McDull films.”[8] 

Figures 4,5: On the top is a metaphoric description (2D mixed with 3D) of how Mrs Mak deals with her daily life, illustrated in a game like animation. On the bottom is the ending of My Life as McDull in live-action, where McDull has grown up and returned to his human form.

As Figures 4 and 5 show, the small production team of My Life as McDull tried to use a mixture of both 2D and 3D, as well as live-action footage, to encourage the creation of a fantasy world imagined by the childhood McDull. Even though the film’s visuals may seem coherent at first glance, each scene narrative may dramatically change from one style to another. Through introducing the voice-over by teenage McDull in the very beginning of the film, and showing the grown-up McDull in human form in the very end of the film, My Life as McDull plays with perspective, imagination, and character design to deliver its core message: we might not always achieve what we want to achieve. The social situation of both McDull and his mother Mrs Mak can be seen a commentary on ordinary Hong Kong working-class citizens by the artist. 

Along with the narrative, there is a specific line where the teacher asks all of the kindergarten students where their favourite places to go are. While everyone else is talking about their holiday trips to foreign countries such as Japan, Thailand, and Canada, McDull’s happiest vacation moments were a trip to the shopping mall in the city centre, where he can eat Hainanese chicken. Here we can see the careful set up of McDull’s central theme. As Toe mentioned before, he did not make this film intentionally for children to watch. It is a film full of childhood dreams, hopes, and imagination, but for adults to watch. In this scene, as a spectator, we can directly reflect on ourselves and feel ourselves fitting into one of the two categories. Are we someone who can travel to other countries for a holiday when we were a kid, or are we someone who can be satisfied with a dish of Hainanese chicken? The honest truth of disparity between the rich and the poor is demonstrated here, as an obvious fact that people often choose to ignore. 

Figure 6: McDull and his classmates singing the Springfield Kindergarten school song

In a different vein, the language of Cantonese has always played a very important role in the representation of Hong Kong cinema. In My Life as McDull, Brian Tse also attempted to construct the playfulness of trilingualism—Cantonese, English, and Mandarin—through punning games. In the opening scene of My Life as McDull, the song “McDull and Chicken” presents this theme through the use of paronomasia:

My name is McDull-dull, my mom is Mrs Mak-mak,

我個名叫麥兜兜,我啊媽叫麥太太,

My favourite food is McNuggets, [Mandarin] let’s eat chicken and sing together!

我最喜愛食麥甩咯,一起吃雞一起在歌唱。

But in the real world you can only say “yes,” just like quacking ducks.

但現實就似一隻鴨,吓吓一定要Duck。

But if I can’t, I can’t, what should be done? How can a chicken become a duck?

唔得!唔得!點算啦?點樣令隻雞變做鴨?

With a chicken bun in my mouth, staring at the chicken roll,

含住個雞包仔,望住四寶雞扎,

Alas! The real world binds me, like a trussed duck steamed with taro,

可歎現實系要一隻鴨,加塊荔芋共我一起扎。

I love to eat chicken hot pot, fat chicken butts are my favourite,

我最喜愛食啫啫雞,我最喜愛食雞pat pat,

My favourite food is soy sauce chicken wings, [Mandarin] let’s eat chicken and sing together!

我最喜愛食豉油皇雞翼,一起吃雞一起在歌唱。

I want to eat chicken the most, but in the end I’m forced to be a cured duck! Duck! Duck! Duck! Duck!

我最想吃雞,我最終變臘鴨!鴨!鴨!鴨!鴨!

In this song, Brian Tse puns by using the English word “duck” as a homonym for “achievable/permissible” in Cantonese.[9]The playfulness and humour of the song can certainly entertain both local children and adults. The message of the politics of powerlessness is also embedded within the lyrics; as the last sentence says, it is inevitable to adapt to the fast-changing Hong Kong society.[10] On top of that, the music is an adaptation of Schubert’s “Moments Musicauz No.3 in F minor.” Tse reused it creatively.

Also, My Life as McDull often plays with the contrast between the music and the visuals to sarcastically infuse humour. For example, the film spends almost three minutes to illustrate the congested highway and industrial area over the sounds of a classical piece by Mozart, the “Piano Sonata K.331 Andante Grazioso,”in the scene when McDull and his classmate go home from school. The cheerful and light-hearted rhythm metaphorically suggests that the young McDull is still full of hopes and dreams, despite the fact that his family is poor and struggling. To further analyse this, it is crucial to also look into other films in the McDull series and see how the change of narrative reflects contemporary beliefs in the culture of Hong Kong. 

For instance, Hang Wu argues that there is a trend of translocalization, or “mainlandization,” not only in the McDull seriesbut also in other Hong Kong films. From My Life as McDull (2001), McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004), Kung Fu Ding Ding Dong (2009), Pork of Music (2012), Me & My Mum (2014) to the most recent film – McDull, Rise of the Rice Cooker (2016), the cultural representation of “Hong Kong spirit” (or, in her words, the politics of powerlessness) has been greatly repressed and restricted.[11]From its language to characters, as well as visual presentation, McDull itself has also changed and adapted to the new Hong Kong. That said, does it still remain a 100% Hong Kong-made animation? What does “made in Hong Kong” actually mean, anyway? What are the politics hidden behind the transformation? These questions remain to be explored. 

[1]Tai Wei Lim and Tuan Yuen Kong, Studying Hong Kong: 20 Years of Political, Economic and Social Developments (Singapore: World Scientific, 2018), 225.

[2]Giannalberto Bendazzi, Animation: A World History: Volume III: Contemporary Times (Focal Press, 2015), 277.

[3]Gigi Hu Tze Yue, “Hong Kong Animation: My Life As McDull,” Asian Cinema 14, no. 1 (January 2003): 80–89.

[4]Ibid., 85.

[5]Wu, Hang, “The Translocalized McDull Series: National Identity and the Politics of Powerlessness,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12, no. 1 (2017): 28–44.

[6]The word fan herb means lunch boxes, a type of food with some char siew (barbeque meat), vegetables, and rice that ordinary Hong Kong people often eat for lunch. This food is also referenced by the beginning of the film, where the production crew branded this project as their “lunchtime production.” 

[7]Kimburley Wing-yee Choi and Steve Fore, “The McDull Films as a Cultural and Visual Expression of Hong Kong,” in A Companion to Hong Kong Cinema (John Wiley & Sons, 2015),155.

[8]Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 142. 

[10] Ibid.

[11]Wu, Hang, “The Translocalized McDull Series: National Identity and the Politics of Powerlessness,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12, no. 1 (2017): 28–44.

Bio: 

Lokyi Tsoi (Kitty) is an animator based in London, UK. She is now pursuing her master’s degree in Animation at the Royal College of Art. Her upcoming thesis investigates the ethics of autobiographical animated documentary, which is also the type of film that she is working on for her first-year project. Her animation worksareoften inspired by her own cultural influences. Her BA graduate film, “CHA” was selected for screening by several film festivals, including the London International Animation Festival.

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