Review: "I Am What I Am" by Sun Haipeng

A fast-paced animated film with many genres

«”The lion dance is a splendid Chinese tradition that combines dance, music, and martial arts into a single performance,» narrates the off-screen voice in the opening credits of I Am What I Am, which brings a Chinese legend from the past to the present day by adopting the style of animated cinema and blending together many genres: action, adventure, musical and dance choreography, comedy, social realism, coming-of-age, and family relationships. Holding together these many narrative and aesthetic sources in a fast-paced film is the 43 Chinese director Sun Haipeng, whose filmography is steeped in animation created for the cinema and for animated television series over the past decade.

The vibrant watercolor drawings that trace graphic lines in the images that open the film are then replaced by animation with realistic tones used to describe life in a poor southern village that many adults have had to abandon, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not, to find work in a big city like Guangzhou. So did the parents of Ah Juan, the 18 old protagonist of I Am What I Am, who lives with his grandfather, has two friends who are also separated from their families, is bullied by a gang, and finds new energy in meeting a girl who shares his name and urges him to participate in the national lion dance championship.

Sun Haipeng describes, step by step, the journey that will lead Ah Juan and his two friends to train and eventually compete for the title in a triumph of action scenes that alternate between the alleyways of the village and the high scaffolding that serve as a stage for the event. But there is also room for moments of “rest,” intimacy among the young people, and between Ah Juan and his parents, who have returned because his father suffered a serious injury at work, and a change of set as they follow Ah Juan’s forced trip to the city to work on the construction site in place of his father in order to contribute to the family’s economy. In this sense, I Am What I Am is a coming-of-age story, the realization of a young person who, through participation in that contest, transitions to a new phase of their life with the help of the people closest to them.

Giuseppe Gariazzo
Film critic

I Am What I Am will be screened on March 25th at Cineteca Milano Arlecchino, in collaboration with Istituto Confucio dell’Università degli Studi di Milano and Far East Film Festival

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22 Jan 2024