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Film review for experimental feature Breathless Animals by  US/Chinese artist Lei Lei, which premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.

In animation, it usually helps to have animals (instead of people) to do their moving things and entrance the viewers. In live-action, it usually helps to have people to exploit characters and situation no animals could ever have faced.

In Breathless Animals, a slowed-down, more entrancing than actually popping-out feature effort, Chinese-born animation filmmaker Lei Lei, attempts to have both: people talking about animals, reflecting their own unapproachable sufferings to cute little things. Leaving aside his hyperkinetic and sumptuous design style, Lei Lei (now based in US) records a series of interviews with his mother, describing her own memories of China over the years up to the 80s, clearly a period of major transitions in the country.

The array of photos and found footage is exploited here, in sync with minimal (and almost grainy) sound design, as if we are to explore a certain personal past -only from a distance. Cultural revolution, a grandfather in the farms, a brother somewhat rebellious, all are here ornaments to the question of what defines a sense of place -and the answer is, nothing in particular.

Aligning itself more precisely within the mockumentary genre, this mixture of narration and experimental filmmaking wants to offer a portrait of a generation who can no longer connect with its Chinese past facts and figures; therefore, a memory reconstruction is in order. Experimentally shy and more reverential to its material than the early images would suggest, Breathless Animals really takes flight when the stories of a cat who hit the road, the chicken who had to serve as a sacrifice offer are narrated -in a third, impersonal voice by the mother. It is mostly here that you can feel the power of experiential mixture of sound and image.

Buildings collide, multiple exposures come to life, and bicycles start to go forwards and backwards -and forwards, and backwards. But rather than becoming a formalistic ploy, it is this sense of recalcitrance that gives Breathless Animals the air of an archival piece that is to be treasured, examined and sometimes questioned.

This approach has its own price. It takes time to connect with the suggestive, but almost barren imagery of the beginning, and not all film chapters (with a fade to black shot) can bring the same level of synergy between sound and image. Sometimes, one wishes for more words, more stories (Lei Lei had a 4-hour interview  with his mother edited) - in the absence of an official story, stories (in plural) need to be multiplied in the same way as images are.

Breathless Animals feels like a sensitive textbook piece to re-tell Chinese urban history in elliptical, but still identifiable visual terms; even though distance between people is actually privileged, there is no distance between people, animals and their own sufferings. It is not a direct affront on official storytelling via wild experimental strokes, and Lei Lei won't pull any of his tricks out of his animation hat. Still, most of the times, the film makes it the case that invisible editing along with a well-calculated, narration can actually move a few official footage watermarks.

Read the directors' statement to Zippy Frames 

Breathless Animals, 2019
Director: Lei Lei
Image & Sound & Music: Lei Lei
Music Post-production: Mark Lee
Producer: Lei Lei
Production Company: See-Ray Studio
International Sales: Asian Shadows  LEI Lei

 Breathless Animals by Lei Lei had its world premiere 11 Feb, during the 69th Berlin Film Festival (7-17 Feb 2019).

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