I Am What I Am
雄狮少年 (Xiong Shi Shao Nian)
China, 2021, 104’, Mandarin
Directed by: Sun Haipeng
Screenplay: Li Zelin
Editing: Ye Xiang
Music: Luan Hui
Producers: Zhang Miao, Chen Haiming
Production Companies: Beijing Qingcai Shijian Wenhua Chuanmei Ltd., Guangzhou Yidong Wenhua Chuanmei Ltd., Heike Film (Bj) Ltd.
Cast (voices): Da Xin (Ah Juan); Da Wei (Ah Mao), Li Meng (Xian Yuqiang), Li Weisi (Ah Zhen), Cai Zhuangzhuang (Zhen Zhuangcheng), Ma Yufei (Ah Juan’s father), Neng Zhenjie (Ah Juan’s mother), Ba He (Ah Juan’s grandfather), Da Chengzi (young Ah Juan), Guo Huo (Ah Gou), Qiu Mu (young female Ah Juan)
Date of First Release in Territory: December 17th, 2021
Described by the Chinese media as “the best animated film of the year,” I Am What I Am is a unique film that manages to combine three elements to obtain outstanding results: avant-garde animation, a culturally relevant theme and a neo-realist aesthetic. Animated films produced in China usually narrate fantasy stories or revolve around themes related to mythological characters, such as Monkey King, Lotus Lantern or more recently Nezha. I Am What I Am is a film that focuses on the ancient cultural tradition of the Lion Dance – a ritual dance performed to celebrate important anniversaries in the Chinese calendar – but sets it in a contemporary and realistic context, where tradition coexists with the tribulations of everyday life. The story revolves around three boys from the South, left in their home village by their parents who have emigrated to Canton. The three are somewhat neglected and harassed daily by a group of local bullies. One of the boys, Ah Juan, has a chance encounter with a girl of the same name who performs the Lion Dance with extraordinary courage and skill; the dance requires concentration, physical strength and extreme grace despite the weight of the bulky costumes that are an integral part of the choreography. Ah Juan, completely enchanted by the girl who gives him the enormous lion head to wear while performing the dance, decides to learn the ancient discipline with the plan of taking part in the national championship to be held in Canton, where he also hopes to see his parents. He enlists his friends Ah Mao and Ah Gou as teammates and asks a former Lion Dance champion, Xian Yuqiang, to become their coach. Xian Yuqiang had given up dancing many years ago, eventually becoming a depressed fishmonger after marrying a practical and somewhat bossy girl, but the enthusiasm and determination of the three boys help him rediscover his passion for dance and he agrees to train them. However, when the team is finally ready to participate in the championship, reality rears its ugly head and forces Ah Juan to abandon his dreams of glory... Although the general sense of the story is obvious – the Lion Dance is not only a revered tradition but also a means of social redemption and self-affirmation – the film’s ending is not a foregone conclusion. Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because it is impossible to remain indifferent to the fate of Ah Juan and his companions. The film, much appreciated by critics and audiences alike, provoked a backlash on social media, where some netizens complained about the decision to give the characters exaggerated facial features, especially the small, elongated eyes, considered an expression of Western and racist colonial aesthetic prejudice; the prevailing ideal of beauty in contemporary China favours large and round eyes, to the point that blepharoplasty is the most widespread cosmetic procedure in China. The film’s director Sun Haipeng and producer Cheng Miao have defended their choice of aesthetics, arguing that there is no single ideal of beauty, that different ethnic groups with different features coexist in China but are all equally Chinese, and that the film has moved away from the standards of beauty promoted by commercial aesthetics to explore the aesthetic possibilities of animation from the perspective of reality. The controversy surrounding I Am What I Am is part of a general problematic landscape in the film, television and music industries, where “political correctness” is gradually becoming the main criterion for judging cultural products. Fortunately, the controversy on social media did not prompt the withdrawal from the market of this truly original and sophisticated film, and the collective effort of its authors and producers – the film’s two-year production was a risky operation in many respects – was also rewarded by a healthy commercial outcome.
Sun Haipeng (Hubei, 1979) graduated from the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. Creator of the Super Bao cartoon series, TV animated series, commercials and animated films such as Fighting, Super Bao, Paola, Justice Red Master, Food Adventure and The Hero of Food Adventure.
2019 – Food Adventure
2019 – The Hero of Food Adventure
2021 – Bao Qiang vs Sushi Man
2021 – Lion Boy
2021 – I Am What I Am