Swallow Flying to the South 燕南飛 (2022) Director: Mochi Lin [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023]

Swallow Flying to the South   Swallow Flying to the South Film Poster R


Release Date: 2022

Duration: 17 mins.

Director: Mochi Lin

Writer: Mochi Lin (Screenplay),

Puppets, Sets, Props. Costumes, Animation, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, MusicMochi Lin

Website IMDB

From around 1966 to 1976, children and teenagers from across China were separated from families and sent to different cities and impoverished villages across China as the harbingers of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This tumultuous time and the unhappy memories that were made is reportedly glossed over in contemporary China but it is vividly brought to life in Swallow Flying to the South, an emotionally moving stop-motion animation made almost singlehandedly by Mochi Lin.

The film finds its genesis as a tribute to Mochi Lin’s mother. Her name is Swallow. Her memories of being a 5-year-old at a public boarding preschool in central Beijing in Spring 1976 is the basis of the story. She is one of many children who are enduring a harsh lifestyle but while the others seem inured to various privations, she still bears her heart through her tears as she tries to keep up with exercise routines and lessons.

Lin’s recreation of the school with its intricate brickwork, tiled roof and red doors and window frames, courtyard with tree, and other buildings is astounding and atmospheric. The interiors are also richly realised with the kind of details like paint schemes and furniture and objects that convey a vivid sense of a place that is lived in and also a place that shapes the people who live in it.

Although the structure seems innocuous the way that the beds and desks are laid out and the way that the children and teachers are positioned and move around in them all tell of regimented lives stripped bare of a lot of comfort. The streaks of grime on the model’s faces, the rough mirrors with surfaces scratched, pots with their contents spilling out all convey a harsh environment.

Swallow Flying to the South Film Image R

With such a location to work with, Lin has created models that are fascinating.

The facial details on each of the heads are individual, delicate, expressive, and beautiful. The smudges and the deep dark lines under the eyes, the squints, all tell of tiredness. Their cloth clothes are also wonderfully detailed. They are all individuals thanks to these physical elements which make them come to life and feel human but there are countervailing emotions, too, since the armature of the models is on display and we see functionalism. That functionalism extends to their movement. This touches on the fact that the authoritarian world they live in engenders that in its people.

What really comes across emotionally, in all forms of animation and audio and in the locations that the main character finds herself in and how she reacts to them is the sense of isolation, oppression, and loneliness. Sound design makes great use of silence to convey an oppressive atmosphere and when that silence is broken by propaganda, music, crying, the sound of water dripping, these effects become more powerful. Great cinematography and direction of camera movement and placement helps to deliver us into this world as overhead shots and dolly shots of the children convey the sort of regimented lifestyle they lead as well as the conditions they are raised in while expressive lighting and shadows from composite shots of what seems to be live-action and 2D animation help build the atmosphere.

Swallow Flying to the South Film Image 2 R

This is an astounding work because we feel like we are there but for all of the grimness that this review might suggest, the film ends on a note of hope. While Swallow may cry throughout the film, the ending sees her having feign the emotion while the adults around her cry as Mao’s era comes to an end. It leads to a wonderful sequence combining stop-motion and 2D animation with Swallow’s character, far more composed than we have ever seen her, moving towards a  brighter environment. It glimmers with a little more freedom. It is really emotionally uplifting because of the sense of overcoming a difficult period of time and I had to wipe tears away while watching it.

This is a great political and personal work that addresses a difficult moment in history. It also feels like timely as Xi Jinping has completed consolidating his position at the top of the Chinese Communist Party and wields just as much power as Mao Zedong. Watch the credits roll and you will see that Mochi Lin almost single-handedly made this short. It is a testament to her skill as an animator, her commitment to bringing to life history and culture, and her love of her mother.

This played at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2023.

If you want to find out more about this film, check out this interview with director Mochi Lin.

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