Princess Iron Fan: first Asian full-length animated movie is an overstretched “short cartoon”

Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming, “Princess Iron Fan” / “Tian Shan Gong Zhu” (1941)

This retelling of a Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West” featuring the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his disciples Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie who is part-human / part-pig and the not too-bright human Sha Wujing is historically valuable for being the first Asian full-length (over 40 minutes) animated movie to be released. It was also the third animated full-length movie released in the world after Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and Dave Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. The film also kick-started the Japanese animation movie industry after its export to Japan in 1942 blew away the natives there and prompted the Japanese navy to commission a home-made full-length animated movie (“Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors”) that came out in 1945. Made under very difficult conditions in Shanghai – China at the time was occupied by Japan, the Communists and Nationalists were fighting the Japanese military and the workshop where the film was made had been bombed in 1937 – “Princess Iron Fan” is impressive to watch with beautifully detailed backgrounds and very active and excitable characters. The film uses the rotoscoping animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement frame by frame: this technique saved a lot of money and renders the characters in the movie very life-like with  lively and shining eyes (of actual actors, I should add).

As the copyright has apparently expired, the film can be seen in one bloc on Youtube.com but without subtitles for non-Chinese speakers. The plot is straightforward: Xuanzong and his followers try to visit a town but their path is blocked by a fierce fire demon. To get rid of him, they need an iron fan from a beautiful goddess but she refuses to lend it to them. Monkey King and Zhu Bajie each try to get the fan off the sulky lady – Monkey King himself tries a neat trick in which he transforms into a tiny ladybug and gets himself swallowed by the goddess so he can kick around her stomach and cause aches and pains – but both followers discover she has tricked them by giving them dud fans that only fuel the flames. The three disciples also have to battle the goddess’s husband the Bull King and subdue him if they are to get hold of the real iron fan.

The plot unravels in a series of episodes and each is long – there’s a lengthy sub-plot in which a disguised Zhu Bajie tries to seduce a fox lady and then the goddess herself – so viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese stories or who can’t understand the Mandarin language spoken in the film may think each episode is independent of the others and wonder why it has to be there. The characters’ looks and movements appear influenced by old Walt Disney cartoons – the Monkey King has rubbery arms and legs and twirls at hyper-Mach speeds while flying through the air pursued by the fire demon or the Bull King – but there is a definite Chinese flavour and style in the backgrounds, reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings of landscapes and nature, drawn for the movie and most male human characters look very Chinese. The foxy lady looks Betty-Boopish with her huge eyes and elaborate hair-style.

The film aims to entertain as well as teach children about their myths and legends and there’s slapstick galore accompanied by constant music and descriptive sound effects that again show the Walt Disney influence. A house forced to bend with a storm puts out hands to stop its roof from flying away and a cat, clinging to the roof for dear life, sees all his fur rip off his body hair-strand by hair-strand.

The film has the feel of an extended cartoon short with three linked episodes of gags and action, one of which centres around Zhu Bajie, the others focussing on the Monkey King, and none of the characters having much personality development. There are breaks in continuity as well – how the Monkey King escapes out of the goddess’s stomach isn’t clear from the film – and some of the frames seem to wobble and the characters’ lines go watery as if the whole film had gone underwater. Given the conditions it was made under, “Princess Iron Fan” looks much better than expected and some special effects, especially the hot flames for the fire demon and a scene in which two characters move behind a semi-shuttered screen, are very well done. Scenes are milked for all they’re worth for humour and drama and fight scenes are very realistic. Western audiences may find the plot and theme of collective action being better than individual action dull and the film is probably of more value to Chinese and other Asian audiences familiar with tales of the Monkey King’s adventures.

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