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.