Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

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Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Most Interet Archive films have found their way there because someone was careless about renewing copyright at some point. Or because they are very, very old.

But there are also films that are there because the copyright holders made a deliberate choice to distribute them that way, being more interested in giving the film as wide a distribution as possible than in making money from it, or because they make money in ways other than traditional distribution channels.

These films are sometimes made by amateurs (that holds true especially for many short films, often of mediocre quality, but occasionally a diamond in the rough), but a number are completely professionally produced. One of these is the animated feature Sita Sings the Blues.

Sita and Rama in Ramayana section of Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues tells the autobiographical story of how the animator Nina lost her boyfriend, home and cat, all at once, and parallels that storyline with the old Indian mythological Ramayana epic about the goddess Sita and her husband Rama.

This film is not only very good, it is also innovative on several levels. Most immediately noticeable is the mixing of at least five distinctly different animation styles, each setting the mood for a certain part or aspect of the story. Underlying the animation is also the interesting fact that it is largely animated in Adobe Flash.

In some ways, the storytelling of Sita Sings the Blues is very similar to that of Three Ages, which I wrote about last week. But where the latter movie has three parallell storylines, Sita Sings the Blues has only two traditional ones, with a third layer consisting of three shadow puppets commenting upon the events and characters in the Sita segments. This last layer is perhaps the weakest in terms of maintaining the tension of the plot, yet it is also very powerful in its own way.

One final thing which must be mentioned is the music, performed by the 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Combining these old songs with the ancient story and the modernistic animation is a stroke of genius. The banality of the words amplifies the depth of the double plot.

This film is best enjoyed together with someone you like.

Nina Paley in Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues
Download link
Year: 2008
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Nina Paley
Stars: Annette Hanshaw, Reena Shah, Nina Paley
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1080)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (4.1 G)