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"Constructivist Animation as Archive: a visual ethnographer's site for cultural memory & dreams" (also titled "Constructivist Animation for a Disappearing City: Hong Kong's McDull Series" / Linda C.H. LAI

** This paper was delivered at the Annual Conference for SCMS (Society for Cinema & Media Studies) 2006, March 3, 2006, Vancouver, Canada



This essay sets out to make sense of the popularity of a well liked animated feature series made in and on Hong Kong, the Mcdull series, at a point when the anxiety for the former colony’s handover to China gradually turned into that for an unsatisfactory local government. The first half of this essay documents my struggle to make sense of a unique mode of graphic realism in the work in concern, and its role in the overall bricolage style. In the second half, I take up the role of the visual ethnographer’s to explore the series’ potential in forming a visual archive of Hong Kong’s local culture and mnemonic system of the past. The political valence of an archive (in the Foucauldian sense) as well as the performative function of populism will be examined in my critique.

The Mcdull series is actually two individual feature-length animation pictures, My Life as Mcdull (2001) and Mcdull, prince de la bun (2003).  They have the same protagonists, a little pig and his single mother.  There are many levels of continuity cutting through the two works, but they are basically two self-contained works.  Both works engage with the difficulty and impossibility of story-telling.  If there has to be a summary or synopsis of any sort, one may say that the two works are both about a pig/boy struggling to become something, his mother exhausting all methods to make her son somebody, and Hong Kong dreaming to put its name on the map of international affairs of significance – viewers know that all of these attempts are inconsequential.  Almost as a form of compensation for the futility of narrativity, Mcdull’s makers present to us a bulk of spectacles that are fragmentary sampling of doings and makings at the micro-level of everyday life in Hong Kong.  These activities may look trivial, non-sense and neurotic, but are all loosely subsumed under the burden of globalization.  Although there are significant differences between the first and the second feature, I’ve chosen a three-minute clip from the 2nd feature, which I think covers the characteristics of both.  The clip begins with the little pig Mcdull in a typical lesson in his kindergarten, where he learns nothing but pragmatic survival skills.  We also see Mcdull shake his legs, a compulsive habit unexplainable and yet running through both films, except that the rhythm of leg-shaking seems to be mysteriously connected to the basic rhythm of the urban space of Hong Kong where construction, demolition and reconstruction never stop.  We also get a sense of the discursive flow of the visual story.

The Mcdull series first caught my attention for a series of contradicting features that sit together uncomfortably.  The hand-drawn-style animation gives the picture an immediate look of innocence and yet it is suggestive and unsettling.  The works show the everyday activities of two pigs in a world in which no distinction is drawn between humans, pigs and other animals, yet the minimal drama of the fantastic is set against a backdrop of hyper-realism, composed of highly recognizable local Hong Kong urban landmarks and commercial signage with geographic and perspectival exactitude.  The animation picture’s rhetorical units comprise mainly of demonstrations, illustrations, admonition, and visual fragments with a documentary function, yet what results is an enigmatic, unexpected, dream-like quality.  In a nutshell, the works’ surrealist spectacle is also implicated in the task of collecting and showing, resulting in an ambiguous touch of historiography.

I have used the term “constructivist animation” in the title of my essay to refer to the two works’ digressive narrative design.  A constructivist method is one that assembles and adds up, inventing relations that is more than the total sum of the parts.  Instead of telling a character-based, action-driven story with a proper beginning, middle and end, the arrangement of narrative information is topical, thematic, episodic and divergent.  These units, with titles such as “my school,” “my mother,” “my perfect world,” all have “Mcdull” the little pig turned into the passive object rather than the active protagonist of on-going events.  Together they present to viewers a series of narrative impossibilities: the attempted stories have no development, with only the exposition and the final resolution, just like the bed-time stories that Mcdull’s mother invents for him in view of the popularity of Harry Potter.  A prominent result of all this is an endless list of things that may or may not have any tight relations but are nonetheless found contiguous on Hong Kong’s urban surface.

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