Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Wan Laiming, 1961/1964)

The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution. 

Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends). 

Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him. 

This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place. 

For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day. 


Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)