Lei Lei, a Chinese animator, artist, and musician, has been making films for just over 10 years now. Using a mixed-media approach that combined cut-outs, collage elements, and drawings, Lei Lei’s vibrant candy-colored tales of love and diversity brought instant acclaim. Since then, the filmmaker has established himself as one of the most refreshing and unique voices on the animation circuit.
Beginning with the film Recycled and its follow-up Hand Coloured #2, both co-directed with Thomas Sauvin, Lei Lei’s work took on a new direction. While his earlier films always utilized collage elements, his later work has expanded on that by incorporating hundreds of found photographs collected from assorted Chinese flea markets. In both films, Lei Lei turns his eye from fantasy stories towards a sort of resuscitation of personal Chinese stories often suppressed, censored, or erased by turbulent Chinese policies.
Big Ideas on a Budget
In his most recent feature, the U.S./Dutch co-production Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish, Lei Lei continues this exploration of Chinese history, this time visiting his own family roots. Using interviews with his father and grandfather (who died before the film was finished), Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish follows the story of 4-year-old Jiaqi (Lei Lei’s father). After the the boy’s mother dies, his father (Lei Lei’s grandfather) is forced to put him and his sister in an orphanage while he seeks work in the countryside. Eventually, they are all reunited by a new woman who emerges in their lives.
Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish is Lei Lei’s most visually and conceptually ambitious work yet and made on a modest budget of around $900,000. Straddling the borders of animation and documentary while blurring the lines between personal memory, history, and fiction (many of the photos are not of Lei Lei’s family), he mixes archival photography, collage elements, hand painting, and clay as he transports us back to a rather chaotic 1960s China.
Behind Every Great Male Protagonist
Through this approach, Lei Lei acts as a sort of animation Dr. Frankenstein, patching together forgotten and erased voices, faces, and experiences to tell a story that is at once deeply personal and relatable to many who experienced a similar sometimes-tumultuous existence in China. What’s equally interesting is that while the film is dominated by male voices, it’s the women (specifically Lei Lei’s step grandmother) who prove to be the real pillars of strength.
“Actually, the two animals signify two female characters in the film,” Lei Lei recounted during a Zoom interview. “When translated into English, the original Chinese title means second and third mother. It was very hard to find a name in English. Silver Bird and the Rainbow Fish jumped into my mind one day. I think it’s very lovely and romantic.”
The Great White North
The roots of the film’s aesthetic, strangely, can be found in Quebec City, Canada. “I was doing a residency there and intended to make a short film based on interviews with my grandfather.”
Lei Lei had brought along a colorful collection of clay to tinker with during those long, dark, lonely Canadian winters. “Clay, for me, is totally new. Before I went to Quebec City, I had no idea what kind of material I would use in this film. I knew it was about my family’s history, but I didn’t have any photos or home movies that I could access. Then I thought I could just make it all with my hands, create mountains, rivers and people with clay.”
Not surprisingly, given the lack of material, most of the archival photos used in the film are not of Lei Lei’s family. He elaborated, “Except for the photo album at the beginning and end of the film, the photos are all of strangers. They are photos I collected from second-hand fairs.”
It’s this blurring between private and public, family and nation, that elevates Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish from being a strictly personal family diary. It becomes not just a story of one family, but of many Chinese families, or anyone who experienced restrictive governments.
A Bit of Levity
The film is not, however, a heavy-handed exploration of personal and collective social and cultural histories. Lei Lei’s comic tendencies frequently appear in Silver Bird. In one playful scene in which Lei Lei must pause his interview with his father, instead of just cutting out the intervening silence Lei Lei lets the tape run while the viewer and his father await Lei Lei’s return. “I think that because I had a lot of time to communicate with my family and know our background, there was freedom. I’m not standing on the stage telling everyone my story. This was a shared experience between my family and the audience.”
Later, his grandfather provides Lei Lei with concise feedback about an early, shorter cut of the film: “It’s good, but not good enough.”
It’s these playful moments and the obvious love between the family members that give the film a uniquely playful, intimate, and almost interactive vibe. Throughout the film, the audience feels part of a lively conversation, a seatmate at a table in some pub listening to raconteurs casually regaling the audience with fragmented tales from the past.
Creating A Legacy
And of course, these conversations between grandfather, father, and son were and are very meaningful for Lei Lei. “Maybe around 2017 or 2018, my grandfather saw part of the film, but he was in bad health. Later, when I finished the film, I went back to my hometown and watched it together with my father. He loved it. He said he had never watched animation in this way before. ”
In keeping with the spirit of collage, Lei Lei was also able to create a special moment for his father. “I cut out my father’s voice and placed it with my grandfather’s voice, so it gives the impression that they are having a new conversation together. My father was very emotional about this part. He said it was very beautiful to bring my grandfather back.”
After working on the film on and off for six years, Lei Lei is happy with what he achieved. “Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish is very important to me because if you say Recycled is very different from This is Love (2010), then I think Silver Bird tries to bring in a different technique. I continue to think about my cinematic language and how to use cut-out and collage together with archive documentary materials. So, yeah, I’m happy I finished this project. It’s like a finished promise I made to myself.”
“Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish” screens this week the Feature Film Contrechamp competition at the Annecy Animation Festival (June 13-18).
An earlier version of this article quoted the budget for ‘Silver Bird And Rainbow Fish’ at $57,500, which has been corrected to the correct budget as confirmed by the film’s producers.