“Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish is a perceptive insight into how ordinary families are affected by dogmatic regimes.”
Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish, director Lei Lei’s chronicle of his family struggling through China’s turbulent 1960s, is at once an intimate portrait of a single family and a reflection of a nation in the oppressive aftermath of a revolution. “Our family is special,” says his father on the audio track that accompanies the eclectic mixture of animated styles visualizing the family history in a period that goes from about a decade after the Chinese Communist Revolution, through the Cultural Revolution, to the early 1970s. But is it special? Watching Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish, one can’t escape the feeling that this is the story of many Chinese families who had to go through the same experience. Despite its vibrant and colourful animation, set against the backdrop of black-and-white period photography, what pervades the film is a sadness that Lei Lei’s father, his main interview subject, can’t completely push to the background with his lively commentary as he recalls his childhood and his own father’s hardships.
In 1959 Lei Ting, Lei Lei’s grandfather, is sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’. Ting, who held a position as a bank clerk in the “old society” (i.e. Chinese society before the Communist Revolution) has to leave his wife and children, including Lei Lei’s father Lei Jiaqi, behind. When Jiaqi’s mother succumbs to serious illness and dies, Ting isn’t told until after he arrives back home, and hardly gets the time to bury her before being sent back out again. Jiaqi and his sister Jade end up in an orphanage. Two years later it’s deja vu: again Ting is separated from his family, this time after being branded a class traitor. Jiaqi and his new mother Jin are also sent to the countryside, while Jiaqi’s sisters are in university and slowly alienating from their brother and the rest of the family. The one thing that keeps all broken elements of the family going: the possibility of a future reunion.
The heart of Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish are the interviews Lei Lei conducts with his father and grandfather. Through their story he paints a picture of an oppressive regime with little eye for the human suffering at their hands. Both men tell their story in a fairly neutral manner, without accusation or regret, but with his visuals Lei Lei manages to underline the inhuman treatment his elders went through. A collage of old photos, animation, propaganda material from the regime, and colourful clay faces becomes an almost surrealist world in which the older family goes through almost surrealist ordeals. The faces in particular, simple but expressive, are put to good use to express emotions and the suffocating psychological terror of the state. Metaphors abound, as family members are presented as caged birds or hybrid creatures with wings. These vivid visuals are a good counterbalance for the sobering story of this one family that ploughs on even when it’s ripped apart, a story personal to Lei Lei but not unique in China. A scarred family, with estranged family members and a broken soul here or there, but a resilient collective memory now tenderly brought to life by an imaginative director whose peculiar cross between a documentary and an essay manages to captivate through most of its runtime. Despite the film losing steam in the final half hour, Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish is a perceptive insight into how ordinary families are affected by dogmatic regimes.