“Remain true to our original aspirations. In honour of China’s military industry” runs the dedication card at the end of the thrilling animated adventure Kiangnan 1984 (江南, Jiāngnán). Sponsored by Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co Ltd, the modern successor of the Kiangnan Arsenal, the film is both an unabashed love letter to the city of Shanghai and a celebration of Chinese engineering that, albeit subtly, reinforces China’s status as a powerful, technologically advanced nation fully prepared to defend itself militarily if threatened.
Set in the late 19th century at the close of Qing dynasty, the film opens in fantasy as mechanical engineering enthusiast Lang (Ma Yang) dreams himself a king in a steampunk land daringly flying a celestial aircraft above a platoon of walking houses. Of course, he soon wakes up in a less fantastical world but is fascinated by the iron warships in the harbour and gets himself into trouble sneaking into the Manufacturing Bureau to show his friends a cool steamboat he’s found in a warehouse. Challenged by a young girl, Yulan (Zhang Qi), whose dog he ends up accidentally kidnapping as he escapes, Lang knocks over a candle and burns the whole place down, earning himself massive debts for the warehouse’s repair. To help pay them off, Yulan suggests he join the Manufacturing Bureau as an apprentice but the master, Chen (Zhou Yemang), who turns out to be her father, is a hard taskmaster offending Lang’s pride in refusing to take him on as anything other than a lowly assistant.
All of that is somewhat secondary to the main plot which begins two years later as a cohort of Japanese spies desperately attempt to prevent a set of blueprints for a gatling gun reaching the Manufacturing Bureau. The historical Kiangnan Arsenal was founded as part of the Self Strengthening Movement which aimed to bolster the nation’s defensive capabilities, producing both firearms and warships at the beginning of the first Sino-Japanese war. This Kiangnan is however slightly more fantastical in its steampunk futurism which sees the workers wearing biomechanical aids extending to metallic gloves on their hands. The “Flying Fish” which captured Lang’s imagination was a high tech steamboat unbeknownst to him piloted by Chen’s late son who fell in battle, bravely making use of his experimental technology to serve his country. “Ordinance is essential for the greatness of our nation” Chen avows when agreeing to attempt to build the gun even without the plans, “faced with a great war we should do our best in duty bound”.
Yet Chen’s grief-stricken rejection of Lang despite realising his genius, along with his rather sexist sidelining of his talented daughter, perhaps undermines his statement in allowing his personal feelings to holdback progress. Lang, meanwhile, patiently hones his craft while continuing to hope that Chen will one day allow him to become a real mechanic as his true apprentice, eventually building on the legacy of the Flying Fish to craft his own high tech steamboat complete with gatling gun and sailing it into the heart of danger carrying fresh supplies. A dreamer, Lang’s vision of a more technologically advanced future is fulfilled in a coda taking place 60 years later in which Communist China launches its first submarine at the Jiangnan Shipyard, the scene then shifting to an image of the modern Shanghai with its distinctive towers and high-rise cityscape.
Patriotic concerns aside, the film also provides several opportunities for Lang to show off his equally proficient skills in martial arts, sparring with Yulan, fighting off gangsters, and efficiently dispatching the Japanese spies one of whom actually dies by his hand in quite a calculated manner which though not violent or gory is perhaps out of keeping with the family friendly flavour even as it once again demonstrates his cool-headedness, ingenuity, and heroism, while the persistent militarism has an uncomfortable quality given that the target audience is younger children. Nevertheless, such concerns are likely to fly over their heads thanks to the frequently exciting fight scenes and derring-do as Lang and Yulan take on spies and conspirators while working hard to achieve their dreams, “stubbornly” as the closing suggests refusing to give up on their future. Featuring bold steampunk design and painterly backgrounds showcasing major Shanghai landmarks, Kiangnan 1894 is an action-packed historical drama which aside from a slightly unpalatable militaristic fervour is also an impassioned defence of the right to dream as a path towards technological innovation.
UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)