Heroes Without Capes – Eternal Spring

I’ve made it clear many a time on this blog that I’m not a religious person. It’s just not for me, and it likely never will be. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wholeheartedly support religious freedom. If you have faith, good on you. I truly hope it makes you feel comfort and fulfillment in whatever aspects of your life involve it. What I am very much against is persecution, which often manifests in this country in the form of powerful and warped people wishing to enforce their version of faith on the general populace.

In other parts of the world, however, the persecution comes from the government controlling what and how a person can worship, or even if they’re allowed to at all. This is the pendulum swinging towards the other extreme, and it’s just as insidious from where I sit. This is the crux of Eternal Spring, directed by Jason Loftus, the official International Feature entry from Canada. The simple act of believing in something higher than yourself is not inherently harmful. It depends on what the adherents do with it. This film is about people who did something important, and the heroic tribute one dedicated artist decided to give them.

Presented mostly in Mandarin (with some English), the movie centers on comic illustrator Daxiong and his quest to piece together a noteworthy incident of civil disobedience that occurred 20 years ago. In 2002, members of a religious movement called Falun Gong made headlines when they temporarily hijacked local television service in the Chinese city of Changchun to broadcast a video about their organization. The religion – something of an offshoot of Buddhism and Daoism created in the 1990s – had gained some popularity in China, and thus the government banned its practice and began arresting believers. After the daring act of piracy, the reprisals were swift and severe, with many sentenced to harsh prison sentences (some of which are still ongoing, some didn’t survive), while others fled the country.

A young member at the time of the incident, Daxiong initially disagreed with the group’s actions, but still wanted to understand why everything went down the way it did. Travelling across the U.S., South Korea, and Canada (where he currently resides), the artist learns from those involved about the operation, drawing the recollections into lively comic book panels that are then animated for the film.

Now, I admit I don’t know much about Falun Gong as a religion. The Shen Yun performance troupe comes to Los Angeles every year, and I’m aware of The Epoch Times, the far-right conspiratorial newspaper they put out. Doing cursory research before seeing the movie (I remember hearing a little about them through news coverage at the time – several clips of the late Peter Jennings are used in the picture), my first instinct is that I’m not a fan. That only matters in one key respect that I’ll get to in a moment, but for the most part this story isn’t about the minutiae of their social or political agenda, it’s about whether or not the people who subscribe to this faith should be allowed to do so in peace, and whether they should be acknowledged as people rather than hunted as criminals.

To that extent, the film is spectacular. Daxiong’s rendering literally and figuratively paints these figures as superheroes and martyrs to a cause greater than themselves, which at its best is what all religions should do. The opening animation sequence, which details the succession of arrests after the hijacking and introduces the major interview subjects, feels like a spiritual sibling to Into the Spider-Verse in its presentation. The character designs are vivid, the action fast-paced (with several lengthy tracking shots), and the personal stakes firmly established. Again, regardless of any opinions you may have of Falun Gong as a practice or political engine, we can all relate to artistic elements at play.

Further, the style behind these reenactments and anecdotes feeds into the better comic book aspects at play. The stories are interconnected, enhancing the overall engagement. Some people use real names while others adopt a pseudonym or secret identity (some great examples include “Mr. White” and “Big Truck”) that invoke exciting mental images to supplement the visual. There are absolutely stunning images like a young Daxiong seeing the knots in trees as eyes that leer ominously from above. The uniformity of the Chinese authorities pursuing them makes for a compelling nemesis. In a clever bit of narrative irony, it’s made fairly clear that the people depicted have no powers other than what their oppressors give them through persecution. It’s a trope as old as the comics themselves. The more the villain tries to tighten its grip, the less control they have. By working so fervently to silence Falun Gong, the government only encouraged more elaborate countermeasures, culminating in the television signal heist, and gave neutral parties a motivation to seek out the taboo message to see what was supposedly so dangerous. When you make your enemy sympathetic, you give them a platform, and that’s what Daxiong is exploiting here to great effect.

The movie doesn’t quite rise to the levels of last year’s gorgeous and awe-inspiring animated documentary, Flee, mostly because this is more about the style than the substance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are some areas where the story could have stood to have a bit more emotional resonance and nuance. As I mentioned, I did some research about Falun Gong before seeing the film, and I’m glad I did, because the story is incredibly one-sided here. The closest Loftus and Daxiong come to scrutinizing the group at all is in the latter saying that he didn’t approve of the cable hijacking at first, because it put a target on all Falun Gong believers in the region, forcing him to leave the country.

That’s all well and good from his personal standpoint, and the animation is at its best when the stories are intimate memories of whoever is telling them. But given the more controversial actions the religion has taken in the last 15 years or so, it would have been a welcome exercise in creative objectivity to note these faults for the sake of the audience. To watch this version of events is to only see the Falun Gong members as pure good and the Chinese government as pure evil, and it’s never that simple. Even if the figurative and literal martyrs of the group were completely wholesome, why not contrast them with the modern-day iterations of the organization, or at minimum go into further detail to describe what Falun Gong is at its core? The way it’s depicted here makes one feel like it’s just a bunch of people meditating and practicing Tai Chi in the park, which is kind of intellectually dishonest. There are several scenes of leaders surreptitiously raising banners and balloons with messages like “Falun Gong is good,” which are beautiful to look at, but what exactly makes them good? It’s a genuine curiosity. Unfortunately, news clips of state-run media saying they’re bad doesn’t automatically make the opposite true. You can still highlight the persecution of an oppressed minority and acknowledge the shades of grey at the same time if you’re willing.

This is not to absolve anything that happened to these people or endorse the repression. Like I said, telling someone they can’t worship is just as bad as a zealot trying to force someone to worship on their terms (especially without any proof that their religion is correct). On the whole, I really enjoyed this wonderfully artistic look at a relatively unknown event in recent world history. My only real issue is that when you broad stroke things a bit too much, especially with an issue that by its very nature is quite complex, it can end up undermining the overall message. And it becomes a touch more glaring in a case like this, where a fantastically talented artist makes a point of showing us just how well he can capture events, people, and high-concept themes through his attention to detail. In spotlighting a group of everyday people who, to him and many others, became heroes by standing up to an impossible force, Daxiong creates a memorable, essential experience. I just think it would have been that much better if we got a little more of a complete origin story.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy the comic book art style in animated movies? Is Big Truck a great name for a superhero or what? Let me know!

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