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Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square

Maureen Furniss reviews this touching Oscar nominated animated documentary that depicts the filmmaker Shui-Bo Wang's perception of Chinese Communism from his childhood to the massacre.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can download a QuickTime clip of Sunrise Over Tianamen Square. 1.1 MB.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from Shui-Bo Wang's Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square. © National Film Board of Canada.

A few days before I was asked to review this film, one of my colleagues at Chapman University asked me for examples of kinesthetic animation (animation made with camera moves over still art) to show to his production class. I had in mind a short list of videos we own, including Chris Marker's La Jetée and some films by Charles and Ray Eames. After seeing Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, I have another great example for him. Kinesthetic animation can be tedious to watch because pans and zooms tend to tire the viewer after a short while. But this Oscar-nominated film (Documentary Short Subject), directed by Shui-Bo Wang at the National Film Board of Canada, is so much more than its technique. I found its 29 minutes of footage very compelling, both because of the topic and the way in which images -- both photos and illustrations, some of which are animated -- are captured on film. One Family's Story Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square is an autobiographical account of its director's life in China, from his birth in 1960 to his departure from the country in 1989. Actually, the story begins long before that, reaching back as far as the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, used to illustrate a significant historical moment in China's relationship with 'the West.' Even more emphasis is given to the life of Shui-Bo's grandfather, who joined the Communist Party, divorcing his first wife to marry a government worker who shared his political views. There are two reasons why this documentary is so fascinating to me. One is my brief direct contact with Chinese culture, when I visited the country in 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square massacre, and was so impressed by the many students I met and spoke to about American life. This encounter was continued to some extent in graduate school, when a friend told me of her life during the Cultural Revolution in China, being sent to a work farm, as well as the way in which the government followed her actions as a student revolutionary and daughter of Chinese intellectuals. Hearing Shui-Bo's account of his experience made these memories return to me quite vividly.

Director Shui-Bo Wang. Photo: Jean-Pierre Joly.

But, on a general level, this film is fascinating for the way it talks about political ideology, dreams, and realities in a such a candid way. Shui-Bo explains the reasons why he was attracted to the Communist Party as a child, which was due in part to government propaganda that told of little children in the West freezing in the streets and starving due to poverty. But, at the same time as he reveals his ardent desire to be a member of the Red Guard Army and fight against Democratic (American) oppressors, he also reveals the oppressive and cruel nature of his own government. He mentions that his parents gave away his pet goldfish because it was considered bourgeois to own a pet, and the massacre of thousands of people, including members of his family. Shui-Bo seems to make all of his remarks with about the same emphasis and without any particular condemnation of the Party or its leaders, relying on a combination of drawn illustrations and photographs to tell his story.

A Change of Heart

Through this film, the viewer can see the deity-like status that Chairman Mao attained not only within the country as a whole, but within the mind of a small child like Shui-Bo, who says he felt closer to Mao than his own parents. Even here, though, he suggests his disappointment (or perhaps enlightenment) when he visited Tiananmen Square to view Mao after his death and did not see the glorious man that had been depicted in government propaganda. In this sequence, a drawing of an elderly, weathered-looking Mao in his coffin is analyzed through a series of detail shots, emphasizing his wrinkles and facial mole.

© National Film Board of Canada.

Shui-Bo explains the emergence of Western influence during the years after Mao's death without changing his tone of voice, but altering the style of his images to reflect the new cultural influences: pop art Coke bottles and Renaissance icons replace more traditional images of Chinese illustration used earlier in the film. Even the recounting of the incidents of Tiananmen Square in 1989 are related in a way that is fairly evenhanded. Certainly, through his commentary, visuals, and score, Shui-Bo builds tension and makes clear that he was horrified by the fact that the Communist Party he had believed in so deeply (he had resigned from the Party a few weeks before) was now killing its own people -- "its future." However, I find it telling that, moments later, Shui-Bo ends the film by explaining that he soon left China for North America, where he "hoped to find no violence, no hatred, and no homelessness." Though the story ends there, the viewer knows, of course, that Shui-Bo undoubtedly found all these things, and more, in his new home. Finally, the viewer gets the sense that what Shui-Bo longs for is a place where one can live in peace among one's family and work toward a better world. Never denouncing the principles of Communism that influenced him so strongly as a young man, he nonetheless acknowledges that the Party of his grandfather's era no longer exists -- and, perhaps, that the world he hopes for exists only in ideology. Shui-Bo Wang worked as an assistant to animator Frédéric Back. He has taught illustration and done illustrations for The New York Times and designed the animation for the NFB/NHK co-production Another Earth. This video, distributed in North America by the National Film Board of Canada (order number C9198 030), is accompanied by a brief guide to developments in Chinese history. For more information, contact the National Film Board of Canada, PO Box 6100, Station Centre-Ville, Montreal, Quebec H3C 3H5. Tel: (Canada) 1-800-267-7710, (USA) 1-800-542-2164. Maureen Furniss, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Film Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California. She is the Founding Editor of Animation Journal and the author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics (John Libbey, 1998).