New York Asian Film Festival ‣ 廢棄之城
The 20th Anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6–22 with both virtual and in-person screenings. Go to nyaff.org for more details.
You will believe in friendly bags.
It’s an open question whether or not City of Lost Things is even a family film at all, but if it is, it happens to be a deeply odd one.
Taiwan has made a very strong showing in this year’s NYAFF, with inventive entries like A Leg, As We Like It and My Missing Valentine making their debut. They also have to their credit the only other animated entry, after the brilliant Japanese entry Junk Head. Two very different movies, to be sure. But both very invested in the worlds that they’ve built. And each rewarding in its own way. Its 3-D animation certainly lacks the polish of a Pixar flick and doesn’t quite have the gonzo stop motion vision of Takahide Hori, but the character design by Mo Yen-Lung and the art direction by Pongo Kuo really do make a strong case for themselves.
Leaf (River Huang) is a highly unusual protagonist for this kind of film in that he seems fueled mostly by self-loathing and a sense of alienation. As he states in his opening narration “I hated it at home so I went to school. I hated it at school so I went into the streets. I hated the streets, and realized that I had no where else to go”.
And so Leaf runs away from everything and finds himself in Trash City, populated by nothing but the discarded scraps of human existence; a world of living trash. Living trash that (in the screwy yet inevitable logic of living garbage) aspires to leave Trash City and travel to the real world, where they believe they will “become beautiful”. Standing in their way are the Armored Trucks, which suck up the trash and escort it to parts unknown, never to be seen again.
So, yeah… it’s essentially Escape From New York, if Ernest Borgnine and Adrienne Barbeau were a used coffee filter and a broken desk lamp.
There’s a perverse Toy Story-ness to all of this (the connection being made explicit more than once, and quite blatantly by the end, but more on that later), and though the animation itself isn’t up to Pixar quality, there’s no small amount of imagination invested in giving inanimate objects a sense of life and personality. Which is all the more impressive seeing as how almost none of the characters have faces with which to express themselves.
Our guides to the world of Trash City take the form of Arty (voiced by Lee Lieh), a spray can who belonged to Leaf back in the real world; and Baggy (Joseph Chang), a plastic bag who quickly becomes Leaf’s closest friend. And it’s Baggy and his people in particular who impress the most; the bags are by far the most prominent background characters in the film, cutting a ghostlike figure that is both eerie and strangely beautiful.
As for the story itself, what’s interesting about it is just how quickly it moves; it’s clear that the self-hating Leaf thinks he has found a home in Trash City (he considers himself garbage just like them, which feels fairly bleak for a kids’ movie) and is unwilling to just let his new friend Baggy abandon him as he plans. And so a seasoned viewer expects the arc of Leaf doing the wrong thing and learning he has value and the power of friendship and eventually doing the right thing and helping the trash people escape.
What is perhaps less expected is that this arc essentially goes down within the first third of the movie. Or rather, what feels like it should be the end of act two happens a little over a third into the movie, and it throws expectations a little out of whack as a result.
The pace is so fast that in some ways it hurts the film; Leaf barely seems acclimated by the time he betrays Baggy to Mr. G (Jack Kao), the self-appointed ruler of Trash City who threatens harsh penalties to anyone who seeks to escape and puts them in danger from the Armored Trucks.
And yet it still tries to stick to the same basic arc, which means act two gives Leaf the opportunity to be more selfish and really risks the audience turning on him entirely.
He kind of sucks, to be honest.
But it’s all prelude to the third act, which turns out to be the infamous trash burning sequence from Toy Story 3, stretched out into twenty minutes of nonstop action. It’s so blatant as to be borderline commendable, but happily it works well enough in its own right; you’re not really invested in Leaf so much, but by the end, you really do want to see Baggy get away and find out what “becoming beautiful” means to him.
(A punchline you might very well see coming, and verges on the preachy, but… you know what, it kind of works)
City of Lost Things feels like a movie that simply wouldn’t exist if not for Toy Story; there are elements from all four entries that find a warped sort of mirror here; Leaf does occasionally come off as the problem child version of Andy if he ever actually got let in on the fun. But in its imaginative sense of design and world building, it finds interesting new twists on what could have otherwise been a far more predictable children’s story.