Animation can be a powerful tool for examining difficult topics. That’s especially true for an artist whose life has been so sharply influenced by a particular event and who has a unique ability to represent their feelings about it through their chosen medium. Comic book artist Daxiong is haunted by questions about the hijacking of Chinese state TV by adherents of the banned Falun Gong faith, which twenty years ago resulted in him leaving his home in Changchun City, rendering him unable to return to a place that still persecutes devotees of the spiritual practice.
Eternal Spring is presented like a comic book, with storyboard panels to show its characters spliced in between fully animated scenes. Following an inventive opening credits scene that subtly imprints the names of crew members on ceilings and walls as the camera pans around, interview subjects are introduced with avatars as if they are video game players. Its tone and setup is best compared to Man on Wire, another documentary thriller that emphasizes the exhilaration that comes with a daring heist. But the stakes here are tremendously high, and everyone involved knows the risks of being caught and facing certain imprisonment and torture.
The background on exactly what Falun Gong is takes up a very short portion of the film. What matters is that it started in China and caught on very quickly, practiced by tens of millions of people in a public and visible way, and the government sought to crack down on something unifying that could challenge its authoritarianism. It’s mentioned multiple times throughout the film that Falun Gong is freely practiced in many other countries, and only in China has it been outlawed after an extensive and brutal public relations campaign intent on poisoning the masses against its toxic influence.
There are many disturbing parallels found in this film to notions that many surely believe are of the past, like the burning of books and vicious torture of prisoners that is barely even hidden. That those things still happen is why this hijacking was so important for those who perpetrated it, a necessary step to show the nation that Falun Gong teaches the opposite of what the government made it seem, a movement of peace in direct contrast with the violent suppression of its expression. Seeing one follower cry as he recalls returning home to find that his father had burned all of his Falun Gong books indicates the positive power that this prohibited faith can offer, and how vicious the crackdown on its adherents has been and continues to be.
The use of animation in this context is startlingly effective, capable of recreating scenes of brutality that line the screen with blood and bruises that feel just as real as if they contained actors or the real subjects. One poignant scene finds Daxiong listening to one of the hijackers to tell him about an encounter with a collaborator during his time in prison and asking him if he can draw as he speaks. Daxiong is able to bring the spirit of these people, many of whom remain in confinement with no outside knowledge of their conditions or were killed during or following their arrests, back to life. Eternal Spring joins other films such as Waltz with Bashir and Flee that use animation to recreate memory in a powerful and evocative way.
In his second documentary feature looking at the human rights abuses of the Chinese state propaganda machine, director Jason Loftus partners with Daxiong for an invigorating look at a daring operation that can only end in tragedy but might be able to impact many who are never able to see the truth due to strict and unwavering censorship. While his film, which serves as Canada’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, is unlikely to be seen by those still living in China, it conveys its clear significance and impact to those in exile for whom Falun Gong remains a source of comfort and its tyrannic eradication in China a continuing source of deep pain.
Eternal Spring opens at the Film Forum in New York on October 14 and expands nationwide on October 21.
Image courtesy of Lofty Sky Pictures