Once Upon a Time in Peanut Town…
After Da Hu Fa screening, many would wonder how politically-charged animation even got approved by The State Administration of Radio and Television in the first place. If the notice to re-edit would not necessarily be pointing out the harsh and dystopic image of the society and the government, it would definitely be highlighting the violent content that according to the censorship board should be cut out. However, in Da Hu Fa’s case, it did not happen. The party does put more and more emphasis on developing cultural industry and soft power, but the bad fame of Chinese censorship seems to overly determine the film’s reading. Regardless of the tendency, Da Hu Fa’s dystopic scenario is universal as well as localized, stands on its own as a great piece of storytelling that draws from the various foreign cultural texts, as well as Chinese art, literature and Chinese animation film, becoming one of the signs of its revival.
Da Hu Fa starts, just like many a good fantasy or wuxia tale, with the quest undertaken by the feisty hero. The title character, Great Guardian, has set out to look for the wayward Prince of Yiwei Kingdom and bring him back to the royal court. Along the way, the guardian stumbles upon an eerie place, a remote town hidden in the mountains, plagued by the strange disease presumably caused by the gigantic black peanut shell that is floating above the village. The dwellers, Peanut People, are mute. Their black-dot eyes and four-petal lips are covered with paper drawings of human-like eyes and lips. At some point, they start to grow black spots on their skin, which means they soon will be executed to prevent the further spread of the disease. The Peanut Town is ruled by a god-like dictator, Ouyang Ji’an, whose power is inherited from father to son for generations. Great Guardian finds the Prince near the Peanut Town, but the wayward royalty is not so willing to leave and will do everything to get rid of the annoying and relentless bodyguard. Both of them become involved in the town’s strange case.
The storyline follows the Morphology of the Folktale in its dystopic variation, with the hero going on the quest to retrieve a lost object or bring back a person, whose lack disturbs the status quo. The magical elements, in Da Hu Fa being stones from Peanut People’s skulls or gigantic black peanut shell, pushes the narration forward, bringing the hero to the resolution of the problem and restoration of the status quo in its theoretically altered state. In Da Hu Fa there are well-known themes common for most classic fairy tales. Firstly, costumes and disguises – the dictator dresses up as a god, wears a long fake beard and elaborate robe, to cover his own mediocre figure and crafty, greedy expression on his face. Paper drawing of human-like eyes and lips also serve as a disguise, prevents Peanut People from accepting their own appearance, making them blind and mute at the same time. It leads to the second theme, the importance of speech. It signifies commoner’s awakening, revealing of the truth that leads to overthrowing the old regime. Peanut People are originally characterized as mutes, devoid of authority and possibility of self-expression, like children not allowed to grow up. Da Hu Fa with its excessive brutality and violence on screen is a classic fairy tale, as each one of them reflects the horror of helplessness, inability to decide and control one’s life, feeling that most children have to get familiar with. Finally, Da Hu Fa mentions the question of what constitutes a being and resists to give the answer as any fairy tale ends without consolation or reassurance that the future will be any better. Except for the universal aspect, Da Hu Fa as a fairy tale is also localized, drawing influence from Chinese literature. Hearing the dictator’s name, Ouyang, it is hard not to recall Ouyang Feng – a fictional character in the classic wuxia novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong – which had been adapted to screen many times. Moreover, in Da Hu Fa’s storyline, there is a theme of cannibalism that also constitutes the main frame of Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary, one of the short stories that paved the way for New Culture Movement that aimed at modernizing Chinese literature and language. Cannibalism not only refers to the act of eating human flesh, but also mindlessly internalizing classic texts that turn people into preprogrammed zombies, much like Peanut People being controlled by Ouyang Ji’an repeating formulaic phrases, constructing the knowledge-power system. So it turns out it did not start with the communist party after all.
As for animation style, Da Hu Fa bears an influence of shanshui – traditional Chinese ink painting depicting misty mountain scenery – especially the opening that sketches the landscape around the Peanut Town as if using brush strokes. The technique itself is referenced humorously within the story as the Prince creates a painting that looks like shanshui in a close-up but from a general perspective turns out to be an ink painting of a naked woman. In the other scene, Great Guardian carries around an ink painting of the Prince that resembles wanted poster straight out of western genre iconography. It is one of the many examples when film director, Busifan, gives his respect to various film genres and animation traditions, especially Japanese. The fantastic creatures in Da Hu Fa resemble yōkai, folklore creatures as presented by Shigeru Mizuki in his iconic manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō adapted for the screen several times as anime and later, the live action 2005 Takashi Miike’s fantasy film The Great Yokai War.
One word has to be said about amazing dubbing. Voice actors gave life to characters on screen as well as animator’s hands did. The dialogues in Da Hu Fa are playful, language and phrases used to give a lot of space for expression, especially when it comes to feisty characters. Xiao Liansha as Great Guardian had a difficult task to accomplish as it would have been easy for the character to appear too bossy or annoying. Xiao Liansha’s deep and stoic voice makes the title character a cool and kickass hero, complements Great Guardian’s appearance.
Da Hu Fa might be one of the titles that forerun a new direction in Chinese cinema. Chinese animation was thriving till the 1980s, supported by the state funding, suffered a drawback during the wake of the market economy and only recently begins to revive with the help of international crowdfunding and other foreign investments. As far as soft power is concerned, animation is highly effective, so the revival might go steady for now.