My Life as McDull
Maidou gushi / Makdau goosi
Hong Kong, 2001
director: Toe Yuen
writer: Alice Mak & Brian Tse Lap-man
art direction: Alice Mak
producers: Brian Tse Lap-man
production co.: Lunchtime Production
Lee Chun-wai ... McDull
Jan Lam Hoi-fung ... McDull (adult)
Anthony Wong Chau-sang ... Principal
Sandra Ng Kwun-yu ... Ms Mc
The Pancakes ... Miss Chan
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival, April 2002.
Surprise winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the 26th Hong Kong International Film Festival (2002), the animated feature My Life As McDull will soon charm international audiences, a reception anticipated by the Udine Far East Film Festival, whose booking of McDull reportedly denied it a place at Cannes. Based on characters from a successful series of comic books by co-creators Alice Mak and Brian Tse from the early 90s, the film is told in voiceover by the mature McDull, a piglet in a world populated by both cute animals and humans. The narrative is constructed from several intertitled set pieces involving McDulls birth, education, and training as would-be Olympian, with excursions to his mothers TV cooking show, the Maldives, and other bits of whimsy. Musical accompaniment is provided by a series of adorably jovial nonsense songs set to ruminatively elegiac classical piano pieces by Schubert and Schumann.
At the same time, McDull is delightfully funny and affectionately satirical. Its surface level cuteness, however, sweetens a core of acidic bite. The film is intensely local in its locations, its play with Cantonese slang, and its cultural in-jokes. But precisely because of its lovingly detailed recreation of Hong Kong locations (Tai Kok Tsui, Cheung Chau Island, The Peak), McDull expands far beyond the constraints of what might be labelled local filmmaking. It works much in the same way as Fruit Chans films speak powerfully to international audiences viewers can sense the authenticity, even if they cant recognize it from their own lives.
Mak is responsible for the original artwork, and the art design is continuously inventive. The photo-realistically animated cityscapes, saturated with remarkable detail, such as jauntily twirling cranes, are dazzling. Perhaps the most moving segment on the life and death of a turkey appears to have been simply drawn with pencil on craft paper, which only adds to its effectiveness. Whats beautiful in the film, and surprising to discover, is the depth of creativity the filmmakers joyfully deploy in the play of different kinds of images. With both a willingness, and the technical means, to dazzle viewers, McDull embodies a free-flying dance of images that animates more than its characters; the film contains the barely constrained creative energy that continues to be a hallmark of Hong Kong cinema.
The film also sports a rich amount of casually provocative, small-scale detailed drawing. Behind the characters as they stand on streets and in front of lunch shops, one finds a Hong Kong bereft of the idealized ideological construction of many of the territorys recent hit comedies, like Needing You (2000) and Tempting Heart (1999). Entropy threatens to leak through the background, bringing in its wake breakdown and disillusionment. McDull sees garbage, graffiti, and urban infrastructure thats decaying around the edges, as if to plant the idea that this magical, candy-coloured city, filtered through the imagination of a sweetly naïve young piglet, contains the seeds of something far more sour.
Just about place or event the film refers to is cited or recreated with precise accuracy. This is exactly the opposite of the workings of the Disney simulacrum, in which (as per Baudrillard) the image presents itself as a copy of things, which, themselves, never existed. Disney's move is ideological: it falsifies history/reality to sanitize and give false comfort. McDull, on the other hand, captures something like authenticity via patently artificial means: it defamiliarlizes, provoking thoughtful reengagement with the society it depicts.
Audiences investing in the Hello Kitty-cute appeal of the characters drawings (and marketing spin-offs) may be disconcerted by the films growing pessimism. As the adult McDulls perspective begins to dominate the narrative to the point, in the films coda, where the animation gives way to live action the inherent tensions in this grown-up kids perspective rise to the surface. McDull isnt a piglet at all, but a normal, if somewhat intellectually limited, little boy, whose typically ambitious mother pushes him into fabricating a dream world as compensation for her relentless pressure for success. He uses this world to exercise his own creativity in comfort, but ends up disgruntled by what he terms, in a striking closing monologue, this sordid world, this is not so dreamy, not so funny a world.
Thankfully, the film doesnt leave him alone facing an abyss of disillusionment. Moving from fantasy to reality, from a childhood saturated with freely self-deceiving invention to sober self-recognition, McDulls life is, by extension, Hong Kongs. McDull reveals itself to be the coming-of-age story of a little boy and a city that, under pressure from authority, invents identities, only to see them crumble when their contradictions become impossible to hide. The film, however, proposes that the task of maturity is to start anew, and to use disappointment as a springboard to a fresh beginning. For an animated piglet, a person approaching middle age, and a city in crisis, there is always work to be done, and its never too late to start.
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