‘Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish’ Review: A Visually Captivating and Emotionally Rewarding Chronicle of a Chinese Family

Family photos, propaganda images and grainy archival footage are manipulated, re-processed and overlaid with wonderfully simple and highly effective animation in “Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish.” This imaginative documentary essay by 36-year-old U.S.-based Chinese artist-animator-filmmaker Lei Lei assembles striking imagery and deeply personal audio recordings to chart his family’s history in China from the late 1950s to the early ’70s. Though it runs a little too long, “Silver Bird” should have a bright future at general film festivals and those specializing in animation.

After basing his 2019 feature debut “Breathless Animals” on his mother’s recollections of life in 20th century China, Lei has turned this time to audio interviews he conducted with his father Lei Jiaqi and grandfather Lei Ting in China between 2012 and 2021. Their edited memories of family life begin during the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and conclude four years before Mao Zedong’s death brought China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76) to a close.

Mixing media and employing all manner of animation techniques from cel drawings to step printing of his own hands working with the raw materials of the film itself, Lei has fashioned an eye-catching picture of China during these dark times. A strong feature of his visual strategy is the application of psychedelic colors onto selected sections of black-and-white images of buildings and landscapes. China as seen through Lei’s lens is a strange land where the vivid hues of hope and joy have infiltrated harsh, monochromatic reality.

Another of Lei’s major creative decisions involves covering the faces of family members in photographs with visages fashioned from plasticine. Though some viewers will be frustrated by the denial of images expected in traditional documentaries, the move pays off handsomely when these plasticine faces are reproduced in the form of cel animation, coming alive with expressions and emotion that any manipulation of photographic imagery would struggle to deliver. In purely practical terms, it also allows viewers to readily identify characters in frames that are frequently packed with people and objects.

It’s immediately clear that Lei is not attempting a deep analytical study of Chinese domestic policies in days gone by, but he is vitally interested in how tumultuous events affected his family’s relationships and shaped its destiny. The linear narrative opens in the late 1950s, with Lei Ting as a young father of three in Ningdu County in the south-eastern province of Jianxi. Following the death of his wife at a tragically young age, Lei Ting married Jin, whose wonderful cooking is fondly remembered by Lei Jiaqi.

As a senior bank executive from the city, Lei Ting was deemed to be part of the Old Society, making him a target of Cultural Revolution purges. For the “sin” of supposedly being infected by bourgeois capitalist ideology, Lei Ting was exiled to a remote village while Jin and the children remained behind. In one of several heart-wrenching revelations related to policies that tore families and lives apart, we learn of Lei Ting’s daughter Pearl writing a letter describing her father as a “class enemy.”

Later segments highlight Lei Jiaqi’s teenage years, when sisters Pearl and Jade joined the Red Guards paramilitary youth organization and severed ties with the family. Alongside memories of watching Romanian and Albanian films released in China, Lei Jiaqi remembers a dream about Mao Zedong coming to help his father. Because his father had worked hard and helped China, surely Mao would repay his efforts by proclaiming “Lei Ting is a good comrade.” It was not until 1972 that Lei Ting was released from his long period of “re-education.”

For all the upheaval experienced by Lei’s father and grandfather, neither dwells on hardships or voices strong political opinions. (The most telling comment is made by Lei’s hands when they are seen squashing dozens of plasticine faces into one giant lump as a representation of how individualism was quashed in the name of collectivism in Mao’s China.) The warm and open manner in which they recall big events and small but significant moments from family life 50 and 60 years ago makes it easy for viewers to connect emotionally with their tales of love, loss and dislocation. With some lovely humor included along the way, the film’s well-ordered narration gives the film a solid storytelling foundation for Lei to overlay with a nonstop exhibition of eye-popping visuals.

Serving as both sound designers and composers, Tessa Rose Jackson and Darius Timmer have created a superb soundscape that captures the feelings of disorientation and insecurity experienced by members of the Lei family. Subtlety is the key, with lo-fi industrial noise rumblings and scratchy snatches of unintelligible and barely audible dialogue complementing the visuals perfectly. It’s also delightful to hear brief grabs of Lei talking to his father and grandfather about these recordings and how they might be shaped into a work of art. At one point, Lei asks his grandfather to critique his work. Credit to Lei for including the frank reply: “It is quite good, but there are parts that could be improved.”

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