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Following the foray of three village teens into the world of traditional lion dancing, animated feature I Am What I Am portrays the modern-day struggles of rural children and young migrant workers – but not without controversy

By Yi Ziyi Updated Apr.1

Still from I Am What I AM

Still from I Am What I Am

A small village is bathed in the festive atmosphere of the Lunar New Year. Cotton trees bloom in the surrounding hills and mountains, veiling the village like red clouds.  

In the clamour of gongs and drums, villagers watch in awe as two lion dancers, one in red and one in black, scramble up a 20-meter-tall bamboo scaffold, competing to grab a red envelope at the top. Thus opens director Sun Haipeng’s animated film I Am What I Am. 
Premiering on December 17, 2021, I Am What I Am (alternately titled Lion Dance Boy) tells a coming-of-age story of three teenage friends from a village of southern China’s Guangdong Province who strive to master the traditional folk art of lion dancing.  

The three boys are “left-behind” children – those who remain in rural areas, often in the care of relatives, while their parents migrate to distant cities for work. There were an estimated 69.7 million left-behind children in China in 2018, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. 
The film won acclaim not only for its stunning visuals, but also for its more realistic view of social issues. It earned 8.3/10 and 9.4 respectively on the country’s two leading film reviewing platforms Douban and Maoyan. By February 1, the film took in 245 million yuan (US$38.5m), a respectable box office performance for a domestic animated production.  

Unlike most Chinese animated films of recent years, which draw heavily from mythology and folklore, I Am What I Am depicts ordinary people in today’s China. It addresses social issues including the struggles of migrant workers and their children left in the countryside, the widening rich-poor gap and the disparities between urban and rural areas. 

Follow the Drums 
Dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), lion dancing involves two performers in an ornate and stylized lion costume. Each movement is nuanced and punctuated by drums and gongs.  

In traditional Chinese culture, lions are auspicious and symbolize power, wisdom and superiority. The lion dance is usually performed during the Spring Festival or other traditional events to herald good fortune and drive away evil spirits.  

There are two broad genres of lion dancing – Northern and Southern. The Northern (or Beijing) style features costumes more resembling a real lion and acrobatic maneuvers. The Southern (or Cantonese) style more emphasizes the natural movements of a lion, like scratching, shaking and licking fur.  

I Am What I Am brings the Southern style to the big screen. The protagonist Juan is a teen living with his grandfather in a small village while his parents work at a construction site in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province and one of China’s largest cities. Small, shy and skinny, the boy is bullied by local toughs and called “sick cat” by his peers.  

Encouraged by a former lion dancing champion, a city girl also named Juan, the teen forms a motley crew with two of his friends, nicknamed “Cat” and “Dog.” They even find a seemingly unlikely mentor – Qiang, a middle-aged salted fishmonger. Once a promising lion dancer, Qiang gave it up two decades earlier to pay the bills.  

The landscapes and customs of Guangdong also play prominent characters. The film begins in a village in Shunde, an area that neighbors Guangzhou. While taking a straightforward tack on certain social issues, Sun indulges in an idealized portrait of life in rural China. Blossoming cotton trees and bauhinia weave shades of red, purple and pink over cottages and ancestral temples. Outside the village, the fields and ponds are thickly lined with broad-leaved banana trees. A giant mossy stone Buddha silently stands in a grove of banyan trees.  

In contrast, the film presents an unflattering portrait of Guangzhou: A cacophony of crowds, cars and construction; migrant workers cram in run-down dorms; a slice of sunlight shines through a crack in the skyline.  

In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily, director Sun Haipeng said the production team spent one year researching villages in Shunde. “Not only did we need to get familiar with the villages in Guangdong, but more importantly thoroughly experience village life in vivid detail,” Sun said in the interview. 

Hues of Realism 
Most Chinese animated features over the past decade are either based on mythology and folklore or original fantasy stories. Half of the top 10 highest-grossing domestic animated films – Monkey King: Hero is Back (2016), Nezha (2019), White Snake (2019), Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deitification (2020) and New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021) are adapted from mythological and folk stories, while the other half – Big Fish Begonia (2016), The Legend of Hei (2019) and the Boonie Bears franchise are original fantasy stories.  

At the Beijing premiere of I Am What I Am on December 17, 2021, director Sun Haipeng said “As the Chinese film market is incredibly huge, it’s common to see blockbusters with box office revenues of over 1 billion yuan (US$156m). But very few animated films take in over 1 billion, and none are original works of realism.”  

So far, only two animated films have hit the billion-yuan mark – Nezha with 5.7 billion (US$792m) and Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deitification with 1.56 billion (US$243m). Both are adapted from Investiture of the Gods, a 16th century literary work that draws from Chinese myths of deities, immortals and spirits.  

In the past, China’s filmmakers have largely banked on established stories and characters from comics, games and history – known in the industry as IP (intellectual property) adaptations. I Am What I Am bucks the trend, telling an original story of ordinary Chinese people in a modern setting.  

“I always wanted to use animation to tell a realistic, down-to-earth story filled with the flavors of everyday life,” Sun said.  

“Animation is naturally born for free, wild and imaginative expression. It seems like the perfect medium for fantasy, and it is much more challenging for animators to deal with realistic subjects. Chinese animation film has been all about mythology and fantasy for a long time,” the film’s producer Zhang Miao told press at the premiere. “But Sun Haipeng has finally found the right spot between fiction and reality that strikes a chord with wider audiences.”  

The film is the first Chinese animated feature to depict the struggles of left-behind children and young migrant workers. When male Juan’s father is knocked unconscious during an accident at a construction site, he has to give up lion dancing to leave home and join Guangzhou’s millions of migrant workers to support the family. The boy works odd jobs as a courier, waiter and construction worker. At night, he curls up on the floor under a bunk in a cramped, shared room of workers.  

A two-minute montage late in the movie provides a glimpse into the morning routines of Guangzhou’s working class: crowds wait for the subway and walk between skyscrapers, people rushing to work grab a bag of steamed buns at a street breakfast stall, real estate agents shout motivational slogans while standing in formation outside their offices, and Foxconn production line workers in gray uniforms quietly queue up for the early morning shift.  

“This film comes closest to my ideal contemporary Chinese animated film,” He Mu, 29, who works at a bank in Beijing, told NewsChina. “It’s purely original, not a retelling of an ancient myth or folk story, or some popular character. It’s realistic. It doesn’t involve Nezha, Monkey King or some guy with supernatural powers. It portrays the most ordinary faces of our daily lives. Moreover, this film’s character design, setting, plot and aesthetics aren’t as influenced by Japanese and American animation as many other Chinese animated films.”  

A serious animation fan, He has seen I Am What I Am twice and plans to watch it again. “I want to support these outstanding and bold Chinese animators,” she said.  

“I think this film is a very realistic portrayal of Chinese society that outlines many social issues, such as the conflict of tradition and modern, left-behind children, migrant workers and the longing of young migrant workers to be accepted by the cities they work in,” Qin Wei, a 32-year-old high school English teacher in Beijing told NewsChina.  

“Young migrant workers not only want to make money in cities, but more importantly want to settle down in them. In the film, Juan and his friends are looking for a level-playing field where their group can compete with professionally-trained groups from the city. Even though lion dancing cannot change their social status or their life trajectory, they still crave a chance to prove themselves because they are pursuing equality,” Qin said.  

Unexpectedly, it was the film’s animation style that sparked controversy. The characters are depicted with small and slanted eyes, something netizens argue caters to Western stereotypes of Chinese people.  

“The main characters in this film have slanted eyes, protruding mouths and big buck teeth. The slanted eyes, in particular, totally pander to discriminatory Western stereotypes of how Chinese people look. I’d say this film has the most poorly animated characters I’ve seen in years,” “June” wrote on Douban.  

Some on social media even called for a boycott of the film.  

In an interview with the Beijing News, producer Zhang Miao defended the decision. “The reason why many people had such a reaction to the slanted eyes is that our aesthetic tastes in animation have been heavily homogenized by Japanese and American animation. We lack our own aesthetic confidence.”  

“The protagonists in American animation generally look handsome and cool, while almost all of the main characters in Japanese animation have large eyes. Even if their eyes are small, they wear oversized glasses [to make them appear big]. But look at the regular teenagers around us. They aren’t like that. If the protagonist was too good-looking or charming, it would be almost impossible to feel the real texture of life through him,” he added. 

Uphill and Downhill 
In the film, the three boys name their group “Salted Fish Qiang’s Team” after their mentor. “Salted fish” is another word for underdog in Cantonese, which has the saying: “the salted fish turns over” (similar to “every dog has his day”).  

But the filmmaker does not tell the same old “salted-fish-turns-over” story. Instead, Sun hints that success in modern China is much more complex.  

In the article “I Am What I Am: Beating the Drum of Domestic Animation,” Gong Yan, a film studies professor at Shanghai Normal University, points out that the film deconstructs the underdog trope. “Instead, it gives the message that life is not a competition, but a ceaseless path which goes both uphill and downhill,” Gong wrote.  

“The film reconstructs the individual struggle of the Hollywood hero and transcends the trend of Chinese mythology and fantasy, bringing the focus from supernatural powers and miracles back to the realities of the nameless and rootless,” Gong wrote.  

Sun Haipeng called the film an ode to everyday people who experience peaks in their lives only to return to the status quo.  

“A lion dance competition is not like a martial arts tournament or a professional sports match. It won’t completely change your life. Even so, while lion dancing cannot change Juan’s life, he himself has changed. He isn’t a lost boy anymore,” Sun told Beijing Youth Daily.  

“Even if this lion dance competition doesn’t change the course of his life, it will make him stronger,” Sun added.