“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.