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Film gives tradition a modern twist

By Xu Fan (China Daily) Updated: 2016-01-07 08:12

Chinese mythology typically depicts a "nian" as a lionlike creature that lives under the sea or in the mountains. And once each spring, on or around Chinese New Year, it comes out of hiding to attack people.

But in a new animation feature, the "nian" shows up in the human world as heavy smog covering the sky.

When this scene in Little Door Gods appeared on screen at a Beijing preview before the film's Jan 1 nationwide release, members of the audience burst into laughter.

It is little touches like this in the film - which focuses on old traditions and modern concerns - that has won the 103-minute fantasy movie critical acclaim.

Up to 160 animators from Beijing-based Light Chaser Animation spent two and a half years to produce the 1,940-take movie, which is now widely regarded as having "scaled new heights" in the country's animation film sector.

For the movie's director and scriptwriter Gary Wang, the inspiration for the film came from his interest in "little figures" and a dying culture.

As Wang says: "Many of the traditions cherished by older generations have vanished. Door gods is one of them.

"I was curious about how a celestial being would respond if he is no longer worshipped by humans," says Wang as he explains why he went ahead with the project.

"I have always had more of an interest in grassroots gods as compared with great gods, such as the rulers of heaven. The struggles of these little figures have always fascinated me."

It is traditional during the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, to place paintings or statues of menshen (door gods) on or in front of doors to drive away evil spirits. But in recent years the tradition has almost vanished due to rapid urbanization.

Despite its apparently simple storyline, Little Door Gods has a serious message for people - to accept change or to reject it.

Set in two parallel worlds - heaven and a human town - the film is about two door gods' adventures sparked by a layoff threat, as there are too many celestial beings in heaven. (Crowding is a common problem for populous countries).

So in an attempt to revive declining human worship and to prove his worth, the younger god releases an evil "nian".

Fortunately, disaster is averted at the last moment by the god and his elder brother, and the duo also create hope for their own future.

The "good-triumphing-over-evil" tone of the movie gives it a commercial flavor typically seen in Hollywood titles.

For Wang, a founder of one-time executive of China's streaming giant Tudou.com, his eight-year experience overseas helped him give the movie a more global flavor, despite its very Chinese storyline and appeal.

Explaining what helped him bring the two strands together, Wang says: "I lived in the United States for many years, and then moved to France. So the greater the distance from to the motherland, the stronger the nostalgia for overseas Chinese like me," he says.

Wang says that in China's fast-growing movie market the future will see a blend of Hollywood standards and China's unique culture, tradition and history.

For critic Zhu Xuan, the narration and rhythm of the film make it look like a Hollywood title, but references to Chinese cuisine and Southeast China's folk dwellings make the film "familiar" to Chinese viewers.

The movie, financed by Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, is one of the few domestic animation titles that got attention from all the country's top Internet behemoths.

Yu Zhou, the producer of the movie and also a former partner with Wang in Tudou.com, says that their IT backgrounds were what tempted the Internet giants to invest in the movie.

Film gives tradition a modern twist

A scene from Little Door Gods featuring the elder brother of the door gods duo who checks a hint left by his missing younger brother.Provided To China Daily

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