Ah, the Best Documentary Short category. Of the three short film categories, it seems like this one is the one that is most frequently overlooked. At least it's the one I always overlook, especially now since I am so biased towards the Animated Short category. I can look back at the nominees and even winners from the years since I started following the Oscars and be like, "What? I never heard of this before." However, by ignoring this category I am missing out. One thing we learned about the short categories from looking over the rules back in the 2000 review was that animated documentaries can qualify for either the Best Animated Short category or the Best Documentary Short category. If you're too lazy to look it up yourself, the rule reads: "Documentary short subjects that are animated may be submitted in either the animated short film category or the documentary short subject category, but not both." That is how When Life Departs was nominated for the Best Animated Short category in 1998, because the makers submitted it in that category.
There have been other animators that submitted their animated films under the Best Documentary Short category, and currently I know of seven of them that have gotten nominated (including two wins). So even though I'm mostly writing about the Best Animated Short categories, I can't ignore the animated short that were nominated elsewhere. And the most recent animated film to be nominated in the documentary category was from 1998, the year I followed the Oscar race most closely. It was this film: Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square. Now that I think back I do remember noticing that a film that was obviously about China was nominated. Yet even though I normally focus on all things China, being Chinese and all, I glossed over this film. It wasn't until this past month that I found it online. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, who is very good about making their films available online, so I was able to finally watch it. And the first thing I noticed was that...it was animated! Moreover, it was...well...let's just move onto the review.
Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square (天安門上太陽升) is an autobiographical film from Chinese-Canadian animator Wang Shui-Bo (王水泊), who was born in China in 1960 and was raised under the influence of communist China. In the film he describes the lives of himself and his family from the early days of Chinese communism through his eventual disillusion with China and emigration to Canada. He discusses his childhood under the Cultural Revolution; the development of his love of art, his personal experiences with the class warfare of said revolution, and his worship of Chairman Mao. He describes his life as a member of the Chinese army. Finally, his exposure to western ideals after the opening of China, and his growing dissatisfaction with the contradiction that is modern Chinese communism. Throughout his life he was driven by two things: his love of art, and his belief in the communist ideals, even as the country he loved evolved around him.
This is a powerful film, even if you are not familiar with modern Chinese history. The film is focused primarily on the experiences of Wang Shui-Bo and his family, giving more personal milestones than historical events. However, it paints a stunning picture of China during those turbulent years.Wang is able to accomplish this through his vivid anecdotes as well as his verbal descriptions of many of the communist beliefs; that Chairman Mao is closer than parents, and the poverty of life in the capitalist country. And these beliefs are not limited to those during the Mao Era. By the 1980s he was vocalizing the need for reform that was held by many Chinese students during the time. The historical events he does mention serve as important turning points in his story: the beginning of the Cultural Revolution marked his personal introduction to the communist ideology. The death of Mao served as a transition into his life into the Chinese Community Party even after the death of its charismatic leader. Finally, the events at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 - 20 years before Randy Johnson's 300th win - was the stake in his faith towards the country of his birth. Some of his stories may be shocking for a Western audience, such as a moment when he and his friends stone to death a dead baby in the name of class warfare, but those moments help to paint a portrait of Chinese society.
Wang tells his story through a combination of old photographs, his old artwork, and animated scenes. The art styles change with the times. The first half of the film, during the height of the Cult of Mao, is filled with red imagery, representative of the power of the communist idealism. The individual scenes are filled with different styles. There are sequences that echo propaganda posters. There are scenes that are similar to the style of traditional Chinese art. There are starkly realistic scenes that echo the works of Frederick Back (with whom Wang had worked) and Joanna Quinn. The art style changes after his introduction to Western works of art. Gone are the propaganda works from earlier in the film, having been replaced with art with Western influences. The final poignant scenes following the Tiananmen Incident echoes Wang's sentiments, and features more scenes of red, but with a completely different connotation. Wang provides the narration for his own story. While he is a charismatic narrator who tells his story with a matter of fact tone, his extremely strong accent may be a sort of a distraction. Still, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square is a very strong personal story that also tells the tale of a society undergoing major transformations.
Sadly, the film did not win the Oscar. Perhaps the Academy couldn't get over its bias against animation, or maybe its a case of Sinophobia, but The Personals walked away the winner that night. I haven't seen The Personals so I can't comment on whether or not it was better, but Sunrise Over Tiananment Square is a terrific film that I highly recommend. So here it is: