Swallow Flying To The South


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Swallow Flying To The South
"A stunning work full of personality and dedication." | Photo: courtesy of the Ca'Foscari Film Festival

Opening with a dedication and the words "based on a true story," Swallow Flying To The South is a beautifully constructed tale of a childhood interrupted. Within stunning miniature backgrounds, a mixture of techniques create arresting stop motion. The sets (no other word is appropriate) are so laden with detail that they'd put some live-action art direction to shame.

Within them characters with fabric clothes and drawn heads. Mixtures of technique can have uncanny effects, Seven Minutes In The Warsaw Ghetto gave its marionettes computer generated (or at least composited) eyes that were perhaps even more unsettling than the events it depicted. Adult authority as headless and heedless as those of the Muppet Babies or Peanuts. Crowds blurred silhouettes, differently part-filled than those of Fly High and correspondingly differently oppressive. Here the armatures of the dozens of schoolchildren are topped with hand-drawn heads. Charcoal, or at least something that shows the granularity of the paper beneath, in proportions that are distorted but well within that differing borderland of adorable between toddler and wee wean. Bordered as if laminated, rotation wildly accelerated by transition from profile to head-on, as if necks were being snapped to grid.

In the latter days of the Cultural Revolution, or at least the autumn of Mao. serried ranks of beds and benches in a boarding kindergarten. Fire, water, and faces are the hardest things to scale because we know from constant exposure how they ought to look. Swallow has much of the last, its story is washed through with the central. Rain, tears, even to the scatalogical. Intimacy a warm blanket. At the end an almost watercolour detail, puffs of smoke from distant activity curling through something paper as the sky.

Mochi Lin's film (she writes, directs, designs, fabricates, animates, shoots, lights, composites, composes, edits, variously multi-hyphenates) is a stunning work full of personality and dedication, encouraging the fondness so clearly found in a labour of love. Lin had a bit of help, co-crediting Derek Jin and cello soloist Aaron Gruen for music and Patrick Zung for assistance with constructing (the dozens of) armatures. In the interests of completeness, and to illustrate just how small a team can produce work of this quality, Savanna Fu provides young Swallow's voice, and Jaehee Cheong assisted the production. Announcements over the public address system's speakers are, one suspects, archive, unsurprisingly available given their ubiquity, banality, and, eventually, import.

A prize-winning film-maker, her latest work screens in competition at Venice's Ca'Foscari festival's 13th edition. In a strong programme it's another standout. Though predicated upon the personal, even the preschool, its setting and sweep recalls works like The Death Of Stalin or State Funeral. Mao was similarly tyrannical, and the pair were frequent subjects of hagiographic depiction as part of mutual cults of personality. The sense of projected self is a frequent topic for film. Here Lin's talents as a filmmaker shine through. All animation is a product of attention to detail, requiring in more than one sense a persistence of vision. Stop-motion even more so, giving the auteur the ability to control even the smallest movement of background actors but requiring that lest audiences see (or not see) something that suspends disbelief. Lin herself was raised in the People's Republic, now (in her own words) "fled to Canada". Her work focuses on systems of oppression and their escapes, and that's evident, and strongly so. This film is part of her work at Rhode Island School of Design. The festival is itself organised by students and in combination it's reassuring that it and other incubators of talent are still functioning. Lin's film is as the relief of a pressing need, as refreshing as it is earthy.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2023
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Swallow Flying To The South packshot
Spring 1976, 5-year-old Swallow is abandoned at a public boarding preschool in central Beijing. When the persimmons are ripe, Swallow masters how to cry, but doesn't forget how to fly.

Director: Mochi Lin

Writer: Mochi Lin

Year: 2023

Runtime: 18 minutes

Country: Canada


Ca' Foscari 2023

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