It would be hard to find a feature-length animation that better represents Hong Kong than My Life as McDull. What Hongkonger could forget McDull’s unabashed optimism, his love of pineapple buns, his existential struggle when the noodle shop ran out of pretty much everything on the food menu, or his dream of becoming an Olympic champion like Hong Kong windsurfer Li Lai-shan?
Directed by Toe Yuen, the feature-length anime was based on the popular comic by Alice Mak and Brian Tse. Touted for its sympathetic characters and unique aesthetics, including an amalgamation of dreamy and realistic imagery, and animated and real-life sequences, the film clinched the Grand Prix at the 2003 Annecy International Animated Film Festival. “It introduced the world to Hong Kong animation. It gave a boost of confidence to those in the industry,” says Lo Che-ying (also known as Neco) a veteran anime artist.
And yet, while McDull is often regarded as distinctly Hong Kong in its sensibility, Hong Kong animation as a whole can be a little harder to define. Upcoming feature-length animation Dragon’s Delusion is also an entirely local film, but its aesthetics are markedly different from McDull. Set in a cyberpunk universe, its visual language evokes certain Japanese animes, but the film is littered with sly, subversive humour unique to Hong Kong.
For Lo, the uniqueness of Hong Kong anime lies in its multitude of influences. He is famous for such early animated shorts as Night Of A Sleepy Writer, in which a writer battles a sandman; City of Suicides, which explores the different reasons why people commit suicide; and Blue Moon, where mystical things happen to the characters. A kind of absurdist or dark humour cuts through most of his works. Growing up, Lo says he watched everything from Japanese animes and Disney cartoons, to the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion animations, which inspired Night Of A Sleepy Writer. Lo was also enamoured by Jan Švankmajer, a Czech artist famed for his clay animations.
Lo draws parallels between the challenges faced by Czech artists like Švankmajer and what Hong Kong artists have always had to contend with. “[In the mid-20th century and before being parted into the Czech and Slokak republics], Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. It was very poor. The country was in constant political turmoil,” he says. “Some of the artists wanted to use anime to express their discontent as it was a more subtle art form. With what little resources they had, they managed to create very expressive sand animations”
Albert Yu, an animation professor at City University’s School of Creative Media, says that Hong Kong animation is heavily influenced by Japanese anime. Many Hongkongers are well acquainted with Studio Ghibli, which was founded by famed Japanese comic artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, as well as Toei Animation—which produced such classics as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon—and Kyoto Animation, perhaps most famous for Akira, which was recently remastered and released in 4K quality. But the Japanese animation industry isn’t just made up of just a few big studios; it has hundreds of studios, all with different styles and approaches.
Yu says another thing that differentiates Japanese anime is the emphasis on storytelling. Japanese anime are adapted from Japanese manga, which is usually quite character-driven and cinematic. “This is very different from American anime, where the emphasis is placed on body movement,” he says. “This might be because America has a strong musical theatre tradition. I think many Hong Kong animations inherited Japanese anime’s strength in storytelling.”
Kong Hong-chuen, otherwise known as Kongkee, appears to epitomise Hong Kong animation’s diverse influences. The Hong Kong artist’s favourite animes include Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira, but he is equally inspired by French impressionist artist Henri Matisse and the natural landscape of Hong Kong. Dragon’s Delusion, his first feature-length film, combines all these influences.
Its story revolves around two well-known figures from Chinese history: Qin Shihuang, the Chinese emperor who united the Warring States in 221 BC and was obsessed with finding an elixir of immortality, and Qu Yuan, a Warring States Chinese poet who committed suicide upon hearing that his country has been captured by foreign forces. Kong’s version of events is set in an unidentifiable time, where Qin, having found the elixir of life, has created cyborgs, and a robot called Dr. D has discovered the soul of a priest from a past life.
Everything in the film, from the landscape to complexion of the characters, is gloriously doused in bright purples, greens, blues and reds, resulting in a tonal instability that rids the story of any sense of time or space. It is at once reminiscent of Akira’s cyberpunk landscape and Hong Kong’s claustrophobic cityscape. The anime is also rife with cultural references: Hong Kong taxis and the KCR makes an appearance, as does a popular figure in Cantonese opera.
The film is being released in segments. The first two pilots were released in 2019, with the first chapter—there are eight in total—unveiled in a virtual launch on August 14.
Touching on themes of suicide, the conflict between humans and technology, and zealotry, Dragon’s Delusion is a complex work that points to Kong’s unconventional career. Despite an early obsession with Japanese manga and anime, the artist studied fine art instead of animation at university. “None of the universities offered any proper animation degrees back then,” he says. Armed with a fine arts degree from Chinese University, he became a video artist and illustrator. It wasn’t until 2003, when he co-founded Penguin Lab studio, that he began to get commissions for simple animated works.
“Flash art, GIFs, pretty basic stuff,” he recalls. “I do the storyboard. I do the design. I leave the technical part to my teams since I’ve never received proper [technical] training.” Of course, he does have training in fine art, which has led Kong to question what it means to create a unique animated aesthetic. “In fine art, we’re encouraged to find our own path,” he says. “I think that mentality comes through in my animation. I’m constantly asking myself, what is my artistic style?”
Part of the difficulty in defining Hong Kong animation’s style is there simply aren’t enough locally produced works. Animation is an incredibly expensive art form, with a 90-minute feature-length film requiring an army of 100 to 200 animators for a span of one to two years, says Yu. High production costs, coupled with the city’s exorbitant rent, has proved to be an unworkable formula for all but the most dedicated.
That’s one of the reasons why McDull’s success didn’t lead to an explosion of the Hong Kong animation scene, as many had hoped, and why it took a full 18 years for another Hong Kong-produced feature-length anime (if we don’t count the many McDull sequels) to appear on the big screen. Helmed by Toe Yuen, who also directed the McDull films, and Matthew Chow, The Great Detective Sherlock Holmes: The Great Jail-Breaker follows the detective and his assistant, Dr. Watson, as they pursue a thief who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The story is based on the children’s book by Hong Kong comic artist Lai Ho, who based the two titular characters from Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous series.
“It was a very important film as it sent the message that it is still possible for Hong Kong to produce its own feature-length animation,” says Lo, who was a consultant on the project.
In 2017, Kong and his team launched a Kickstarter campaign for Dragon’s Delusion, with clear targets set for each stage of the production. They have raised HK$1.6 million of their $8 million target so far. It is an innovative approach but also a risky one. How confident is Kong in reaching that final target? The artist says he isn’t giving himself a deadline, though says they’re looking into other sources of funding, both public and private. “Hopefully we’ll get support from the audience because that’ll prove that we had the right vision,” he says.
He also notes that any animated film is an endeavour by many different partners. In the case of Dragon’s Delusion, it’s the effort of three Hong Kong studios: Kong’s Penguin Lab, Lee Kwok Wai’s Five Monkeys Workshop and Tommy Ng’s Point Five Creations.
Lee is known for Resettlement Memory, an animated short that succinctly asks what home means in the face of unjust resettlement policies. Meanwhile, Ng’s 2019 work, Another World, rendered in dreamy pastel hues, follows the protagonist as she searches for her brother in the afterlife, with the aid of Ghostie, a lost ghost.
Hailed by critics, Resettlement Memory and Another World received the gold award in the animation category at the Incubator for Film and Visual Media in Asia awards in 2017 and 2019. which also point to the fact that Hong Kong’s animated arts have always had an audience with the indie film and art crowd. And it is perhaps at festivals, in galleries and other independent arts spaces that one could better glean the richness of the Hong Kong animation scene.
Kong currently has three animated pieces at Eaton Workshop’s Tomorrow Maybe art space. Noteworthy is Moon in the River, which poignantly asks what Hong Kong means, what the fight for our identity means amidst all the grand events in history. “The exhibition is a response to what happened in Hong Kong in the past year,” he says. “I’m always asking myself, what makes Hong Kong unique? Why should people care about this city?”
The question provides the perfect opportunity to circle back to the question: what is Hong Kong animation? He doesn’t give a straight-forward answer. “With the work I’m doing, I want to create an aesthetic that is distinctly Hong Kong,” he says. But he also adds, “No director should feel obliged to produce something about or of Hong Kong. I think the most important thing is to tell your story, to be honest to what you want to say.”
More information about Dragon’s Delusion is available on its Kickstarter page.