Eternal Spring, Jason Loftus’s feature-length largely animated documentary about the 2002 hijacking of a state TV signal in China by members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, is currently playing at Bertha Dochouse in London and at other cinemas across the world. The film chronicles a small group of Falun Gong practitioners, whose aim through the hijack was to counter the government’s narrative about their practice at a time when Falun Gong faced growing pressure and persecution.
The film uses the surviving hijackers’ memories as material through which scenarios are visualised by artist Daxiong, also a Falun Gong practitioner, who was forced to leave China as a result of the government crackdown following the hijacking. The design includes elaborate architectures and environments, through which the camera travels revealing characters and scenarios. As the action progresses we are introduced to a group of characters who come together as a community of activists, and are subsequently torn apart by the repercussions of their activism.
Eternal Spring does not completely get away from some of the problematic elements of animated reconstruction (and indeed of any reconstruction or reenactment), whereby richly detailed scenes are presented without the audience having full access to the knowledge of which details of the action and environment come from rigorous research, memory or record, and which come from the imagination of the filmmakers and designers.
However the film does constantly work to legitimise its representations, by adopting the reflexive technique of showing the research and development process through the eyes of Daxiong. The artist reflects on his own life and memories at the same time as talking to surviving hijackers and reconstructing theirs.
This process of making what Daxiong describes as ‘art based on a shared memory’ forms the spine of the film, with reconstructions emerging from live action interview scenes in which Daxiong is sketching as interviewees are describing their memories. At other times we see interviewees looking at designs and work-in-progress animated scenes, and responding to them, before we are plunged into the fully rendered glossy scene itself.
The visual design of the animated scenes gives the action, including scenes of physical abuse, a comic book / gangster heist quality. Gangster film tropes are also referenced in the cinematography, down to freeze-frame character introductions and even a dolly zoom in a diner, à la Goodfellas. This use of cinematic language can add drama in certain moments – the hijack itself gets quite tense – but gives it also gives the film a genre sheen that can be distancing at times.
The film also breaks with this design at moments, including a beautifully fluid expressionistic sequence at an emotional climax, in which a character’s psychology is represented through more abstracted images and action, leaning into symbolic imagery and evocative sounds, in an inky black-and-white aesthetic. Moments such as this elevate the film, heightening emotion and exploiting animation’s ability to do more than merely reenact.
Eternal Spring focuses its action almost exclusively around the run-up to and the fallout from the 2002 hijack. The absence of a wider contemporary context for Falun Gong has led some reviewers to view the film with notes of suspicion. The absence of any reference to the movement’s links to far right US media, for example, raises eyebrows in otherwise positive reviews in Indiewire and The Guardian. But this is a film that is honestly and unashamedly one-sided. It tells the story from the point of view of the hijackers – their experience of persecution, and of the sometimes exhilarating, ultimately tragic, events that changed the course of their lives. It’s an absorbing watch, a polished production, and essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the animated documentary form.
To find local screenings and more information on Eternal Spring, see the website: eternalspringfilm.com