‘Eternal Spring’ Review: Canada’s Oscar Pick Airs Chinese Censorship

Jason Loftus’ animated documentary tells a political story about a group of Falun Gong adherents who hijacked Chinese state television in 2002, but that’s only part of the story.

In the strategic maneuvers of Oscar season, it’s always wise to prioritize timeliness. Hoping to capitalize on last year’s immense love for Flee, the first film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best International Feature, and For Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, Canada selected a politically daring animated documentary as its official entry. Apparently nobody at the National Film Board of Canada knows anything about Wikipedia.

Directed by Jason Loftus, Eternal Spring uses beautiful 3D art to animate the story of a 2002 hijacking of state television by members of Falun Gong, a religious group that became violent in the late ’90s/early ’90s was censored. Artist Daxiong draws on childhood memories and lends emotional weight to the story while restating his feelings about religion.

In its own right, it’s a stirring portrait of political dissidents fighting for religious freedom — but the film fails to mention that religion is currently promoting a variety of far-right conspiracy theories, including QAnon, anti-vaccination misinformation, and denigrating evolution, atheism, and homosexuality. Unfortunately for film’s creative merits, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Falun Gong (or Falun Dafa) originated in the northeast city of Changchun, where Daxiong was born and raised. Classified as a new religious movement, the meditation-based practice blends Buddhist and Taoist traditions with qigong-style exercises (though it would later quarrel with qigong groups). Initially backed by the Chinese government, attitudes changed as the movement gained widespread popularity both at home and abroad. By 1999, the full weight of China’s state-sponsored media and state surveillance fell on the practice, causing many members to eventually flee the country.

“Eternal Spring” tells the story of the TV takeover. On March 8, 2002, a group of Changchun practitioners hijacked state television to broadcast footage of Falun Gong, which is practiced around the world and praised as a positive religion based on love. After setting the stage for Daxiong’s personal connection to religion, the film follows the artist as he interviews surviving members of the TV takeover and outlines their similarities with quick fidelity. Loftus introduces the various players like avatars in a video game, repeating themselves when their voices are heard, making it easy to follow and connect with each character. Daxiong’s drawings are then transformed into a compelling 3D animation to tell the story that unfolds in a captivating heist thriller clip.

Seamlessly shifting from contemporary interviews to lyrical animation, Eternal Spring offers a nice insight into the making of the film while inspiring empathy and connecting the story to today, with some obvious caveats. A man cries after seeing an animated version of the house he can never return to, highlighting the human toll taken by the Chinese government’s brutality. Unfortunately, many of the key players in the TV takeover didn’t survive their lengthy prison sentences or torture. With Daxiong’s detailed faces and descriptive narration, the animation is able to bring her back to life, although her absence from the live parts is a dire warning.

One character that stands out is called Big Truck. Described as a former bully who changed his behavior after finding Falun Gong. His massive frame fills the story with a gentle, immense humbleness, and his heroic story of escaping from prison is inspiring. Liang is dubbed The Mastermind, a respected local leader who organized the kidnapping. A beautiful scene emerges from one of his more creative protests, when banners reading “Falun Gong is good” float high above the city on helium balloons. When an officer pops a balloon, yellow paper airplanes tumble down like confetti.

The film ends with a sad afterword that describes how and where these characters died, mostly in prison or from injuries sustained there. When their photos appear alongside their destinies, it’s amazing how easily names and numbers are forgotten. How many people are currently suffering in Chinese prisons and who will tell their stories? Staged with the utmost care, Eternal Spring feels like a holy reckoning, rescuing a bold act of political protest from the darkness of time and propaganda. But that was then.

Today, Falun Gong is known for owning and operating The Epoch Times, “a multilingual newspaper that opposes the Chinese Communist Party, promotes far-right politicians in Europe, and has championed former President Donald Trump in the US,” according to the report Wikipedia. “The Epoch Media Group news sites and YouTube channels have been promoting conspiracy theories such as QAnon and anti-vaccination misinformation, as well as false claims of fraud in the 2020 United States Presidential Election. In 2020, The New York Times called it a ‘global misinformation campaign’.”

“Eternal Spring” would not be the first time Falun Gong has used art to spread its messages. Falun Gong also runs its own television station, New Tang Dynasty, and Shen Yun Performing Arts, a US-based entertainment company. All of these facilities are overseen by the founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, who appears in the film as a trusted interviewee, despite publicly professing that extraterrestrials walk the earth.

The story of “Eternal Spring” deserves to be told, but truthfully, Loftus’ film is a victim of the very type of insidious propaganda that Falun Gong members once tried to combat.

Class: D

Eternal Spring is now in select theaters.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/10/eternal-spring-review-canada-oscar-chinese-censorship-1234774943/ ‘Eternal Spring’ Review: Canada’s Oscar Pick Airs Chinese Censorship

Lindsay Lowe

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