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AWAY, GINTS ZILBALODIS
Away (2019), Gints Zilbalodis

Five international films pushing animation forward in 2021

Including Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis’ cel-shaded debut, a sticky body horror nightmare by Ujicha, and Yonfan’s love letter to Hong Kong

In a year where the film industry has been devastated by pandemic-related disruption, animated productions have fared comparatively well in the shadows of their COVID-unfriendly, live-action brethren.

In October, Netflix reported that global viewership of anime had grown by 50 per cent since September 2019. True, big studio productions from the likes of Pixar have settled for less in the wake of cinema closures – but still, 13 per cent of Disney+ subscribers signed up exclusively to watch Soul. The film ended the year as one of the most-watched straight-to-streaming titles, despite only being released on Christmas Day. In Japan, meanwhile, Demon Slayer is, unexpectedly, now the highest-grossing movie of all-time, having spent twelve weeks at number one to topple even the mighty Spirited Away.

Studio Ghibli faces an uphill struggle to regain bragging rights (fans are already divided over the 3D, computer-generated visuals of Earwig and the Witch), and with that there’s every reason to ponder what might be the next major coup from the smaller ranks. Because as much as traditional Japanimation and Hollywood powerhouses continue to take the plaudits, there could well be a levelling of the playing field in 2021 courtesy of one-man animation studios and international imports.

With a number of foreign-language animated films now tipped for Academy Awards glory in 2021, Dazed investigates five innovative animated works from non-English speaking countries proving the industry has plenty to offer from the sidelines.

AWAY, GINTS ZILBALODIS (LATVIA)

This cel-shaded feature debut from Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis was the product of three and a half years of solo determination. And the completed Away is the kind of hypnotic triumph that lingers long in the mind.

Arriving on streaming platforms on January 18, this minimal and dialogue-free tale of a stranded boy and his yellow, avian companion, is a genuinely entrancing experience. As they flee from a slow-moving shadow demon, the duo brave vast lands of sand, snow, moss and mountain in search of civilisation, encountering elephants, llamas and tortoises with only the gentle pursuit of salvation guiding their path. It’s visual meditation at its best.

The film is dotted with spellbinding, Ghibli-like imagery, while purring cats and twittering birds provide an ambient soundtrack in lieu of speech. But it’s the pastel coloured visuals that makes it such a simplistic pleasure, with gentle transitions from yellow to green to snow white and sea blue guiding the viewer through chapters with titles like ‘Forbidden Oasis’ or ‘Mirror Lake’.

Most impressive of all is that it was all done by one man. Zilbalodis wrote, directed, animated, produced, and even scored the film – and his tireless work has resulted in purest splendour here.

VIOLENCE VOYAGER, UJICHA (JAPAN)

Receiving their UK premieres this month as part of a bumper Blu-ray boxset from Third Window Films are the spectacular “gekimation” works of writer-illustrator-director Ujicha. He’s a one-man animation juggernaut – working tirelessly from his bedroom to produce thousands of cardboard props, which are then filmed in real-time to create his unique, hybrid style. The results are emphatic – and disturbing.

Violence Voyager, a Wizard of Oz-style adventure that takes a twisted turn as its characters stumble upon a sinister amusement park, demonstrates the mind-boggling spectacle of “gekimation” perfectly. Like a cross between puppet theatre and the cut-out animation of South Park, Ujicha’s work not only brings illustrations to life, but also pits them against forces of nature – fire, water, and various suspicious goos. Before long, the film’s young protagonist finds himself in the middle of a sticky body horror nightmare – which is only augmented by the uniquely strange visual style.

If you ever wondered what The Thing might be like as a pop-up book, look no further.

KILL IT AND LEAVE THIS TOWN, MARIUSZ WILCZYŃSKI (POLAND)

It would take Polish animator Mariusz Wilczyński 11 years to complete this dark feature debut, but with a Best First Feature nomination from Berlin greeting him on the other end, the struggle has already paid dividends. Kill It And Leave This Town is “the first animated art film in the history of Polish cinema”, claims the director – it will arrive on UK screens in March.

Opening with a dim light on a black canvas and a fug of cigarette smoke, Kill It And Leave This Town immediately offers a fascinatingly abstract focal point as its scratchy, scribbled characters come to life. Shades of grey, black and blue, meanwhile, colour an Eastern European town plagued by thick rains, zoomorphism and forever-delayed public transport, as a relentless soundtrack of gutter-soaked blues turns each bleak vignette into a fever dream.

Inspired by the director’s upbringing in the industrial town of Łódź, in communist Poland, this polluted tale evokes a uniquely gloomy atmosphere, almost akin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Look out for giants peering through apartment windows, cadavers being sewn up for burial, and, at its surrealist, tiny men swimming around in barrels like sea monkeys, waiting to be plucked and butchered for sale over a shop counter.

NO.7 CHERRY LANE, YONFAN (HONG KONG)

Released during one of Hong Kong’s most turbulent years in recent history, this love letter to the country’s politically-charged late 60s feels poignant on the verge of another year of uncertainty.

It’s an absorbing and transcendental piece of work that yearns for a simpler time – that of acclaimed queer director Yonfan’s own childhood. And yet, paradoxically, the romantic and dream-like world No. 7 Cherry Lane depicts was every bit as problematic as the one we live in today; references to Taiwan’s “White Terror” political suppression, and the Hong Kong student protests against British occupation prove particularly resonant.

The film’s philosophical complexity is clearly intentional. Yonfan’s first film in a decade – his first animated feature ever – is deliberately surreal in its languid pacing, otherworldly characters and homoerotic overtones. And the atmosphere is only enriched by the film’s striking animation style – a mixture of rich, hyper-real illustration and jarring CGI effects.

Reception has been divisive, and yet the film has received significant attention since premiering at the 76th Venice Film Festival, where it competed for the Golden Lion. Premiering in the UK at the London East Asian Film Festival just before Christmas 2020, this paean to old Hong Kong is a memorable, if highly mysterious odyssey.

BOMBAY ROSE, GITANJALI RAO (INDIA)

The release of Netflix’s first-ever Indian animated film has been delayed on the streaming platform due to “technical difficulties”, having initially been penned to arrive on Dec 4. But that hasn’t stopped the film from being lauded as a potential Oscar punt, having already made the longlist for Best Animated Feature.

Directed by Gitanjali Rao, Bombay Rose is a montage of real-life stories about Mumbai street life, intertwined to form an overarching narrative focusing on troubled romances. The unique animation style combines modern influences with swirling brush-strokes akin to the post-Impressionist paintings of Van Gogh and Rousseau – hand-painted by Rao and her team of 60 artists. Even with this sizeable personnel, the film took 18 months to complete – a testament to its depth of quality.

Rich with warm pastel colours, traditional music and stories of family, poverty, and religion, Bombay Rose is a fitting tale to represent India’s “city of dreams” – an idealistic slice of vicarious globe-trotting for UK audiences otherwise confined to their own homes.