The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The 22nd annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place between July 14 and July 30. For more information, click here.

Alongside the (unifromly excellent) live action shorts showcase, this year the NYAFF is running an animated shorts program. I was lucky enough to be able to catch all ten, and here are my thoughts:

There’s something purposefully childlike in the style choices director Lee Yung-Chieh makes in his brief little interlude Confusion Of The Afternoon. Opening in a kind of diorama-esque tableau, a fleeting moment of human contact stops time and melts reality into an expressionistic rush of watercolor animation resembling a softwash of moving fingerpaints, as a young student experiences feelings he cannot even begin to understand. The film passes in an instant, as does the moment itself. But in art just as much as life, its memory lingers.

The thing is, I knew exactly what Kang Nam-jim doing and where we were almost certain to wind up, pretty much as soon as it started. And most likely, so will you. But it doesn’t matter; if you’ve ever been part of a family, there is at least a halfway decent chance that you will be helpless before the power of What We Leave Behind, an at times absolutely gutting journey through the three major L’s of human existence: love, loss, and loneliness. Stop motion brings the history of an apartment to life in the form of the trappings of daily existence; we hear the voices of a pair of newlyweds as they move in and we see boxes unpack themselves, dishes appear and disappear during candlelight dinners, a baby crib put itself together… life being lived, and time passing. Birthdays, Christmases, graduations. The years tick by faster and faster, and, well… just look at the title. It’s not hard to see where this is going. It is, without a doubt, manipulative stuff. But it works, because as anyone who has ever had to clean out a place they’ve lived in for an extended period of time already knows, there’s an undeniable power to reviewing the moments of our lives through the prism of the inanimate objects that surrounded us in those moments. It works, because it’s universal.

And now for something equally personal, but significantly lighter… as a person who is, even after several decades, still typing on a keyboard under protest, the charming essay film Handwritten by Jaime Sunwoo was very much speaking my language. Animated in an endearing style resembling a hand-crafted pop-up book, Sunwoo explores the lost art of writing on paper from a multitude of angles and what these things may or may not say about us as people. She proves an ingratiating guide and when I say it feels like the grown-up version of a segment from, say, The Electric Company or 3-2-1 Contact, I mean it as the highest compliment. 

I’m not sure if this is an adaptation of an old fairy tale or merely a story in that mode that director Hu Rui invented, but if Goose Mountain is an original, he certainly has the tone down pat. In style and substance, this story of a peddler traveling a mountain road to sell some geese and his near-induction into a matryoshka doll of spirit world infidelity feel uncannily like something you’d find in an old dusty book of fables: kind of funny, kind of dark, kind of sad, and always ominous. The art style even resembles the illustrations you’d find in such a book, inky monochrome with occasional slashes of red. Completely silent but making use of intertitles that’s implementation of the second person gives the whole thing a uniquely intimate sheen, Goose Mountain attains a proper bedtime story feel tailor made for the cool kind of creepy kid.

The fact that there’s an actual fairy in Kong Songhee’s Borderline. Should in no way be taken as a sign that it’s a happier story than Goose Mountain. If anything, it’s a misdirect, a bewinged shot of false hope. It’s not difficult to assess that the fairy tale dreamscapes in Kong Songhee’sare about something, and the clues pile up over it’s short runtime, but it’s not until the final, unblinking moments that the jaws snaps shut and we see just how sharp the teeth of the tale really were. This is a very different variety of dark fairy tale than the kind that Goose Mountain pays homage to; from the very first frame there’s a sense of menace as a little girl takes a journey towards a lighthouse that isn’t a lighthouse, chased by… something or someone. The art style and the imagery are both simple and surreal, and suffused with a constant underpinning of disorienting threat. 

The selection of animated shorts on this program are each visually stunning in their own way, but if I had to pick one that wins the award for most unique aesthetic, I might just have to hand it to The Kidnapping by Good Giu and Liu Kuang. This sweetly sentimental tale about a crotchety oldster on the verge of moving out of his old neighborhood into a high rise, and the magical talking lottery ticket that carries him off for a secret meeting is CGI, but given a multicolor polish that makes everything look like a three dimensional impressionist painting. It’s a style I’ve never seen before, and one I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of.

My initial thought after watching the legend-prodding, visually variant journey into Chinese myth that is Chiang Yao’s Impurrfection is that it’s a weirdly punny title for a story that, while not particularly serious, isn’t aiming to be funny in quite that way. The second was that it, along with The Kidnapping, felt the closest to a Pixar short in tone and form as well as content. It’s a cute little story of a cat that lost out on the chance to be part of the Zodiac due to a fear of water (it makes sense when you watch it), and how he stumbles upon, and winds up becoming guardian to an adorable human baby. It’s a cute, entirely pleasant, real comfort food sort of story, and the mix of animation styles (3-D in the present day, but hand-drawn in flashbacks) lend it a lovely kind of charm.   

And speaking of charm… I wish I had a better frame of reference for the stylistic beauty of Ship Down The Well than South Park, but it’s at least a useful comparison in terms of how they approached a cut-out style similar to what Chen Xi and Zhou Xiaolin implement here; where by both necessity and temperament Trey Parker and Matt Stone went crude and ugly, there is a delicate beauty to the construction of the figures here, and a real sense of depth and detail in the world Xi and Xiaolin have designed. The story itself, about a quartet of kids who explore the setting of the title, evokes a universal sense of childhood play and more than anything I’ve seen in recent memory, captures the feel of the story you told when you came in at sunset and your parents asked you what you and your friends got up to on a lazy August afternoon. 

As a fan of hand-drawn 2-D animation, the very aesthetic on display in Yu Shui’s Little Pig Demon had me on board immediately; there was a fairly good chance I was going to love this regardless of the content, on sheer look alone. Happily, it had more to offer than just lovely visuals; it’s a funny and cool story about a pair of bumbling demons forced to work on a plot to capture and eat a heroic monk. I’m pretty sure the story is a one-and-done, but I’d gladly watch an entire series about the adventures of Pig and Crow.

But, close as that comes to being my favorite, there’s one last entry that needs to be discussed…

Here’s what it is, straight and no chaser: I’ve actually seen Hidari before, and… look. Every single short in this program has a high watchability quotient, and I would recommend each and every one of them. But if, for some Godforsaken reason, you’re only able to catch one on penalty of death… I think this might have to be it. I think it might actually be available online, so for once I’m not going to say anything. Just plop Hidari into google, click on the link and prepare yourself for five minutes of hand-carved, stop motion astonishment. Directors Masashi Kawamura and Iku Ogawa are master craftsmen, and we should give them whatever they ask for. 

Just like the live action shorts, the NYAFF has curated one hell of a collection here, and if ever you have the opportunity to catch one (or preferably all) of them, do not hesitate.

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