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The Country of Summer Insects
A nostalgic animated film by Chinese artist Tang Bohua, on the capital city of fireworks
by Alessandro De Toni
on 18 April 2014
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Tang Bohua (TBH) was born in Liuyang, Hunan Province—the Chinese capital of fireworks—a city scattered with Buddhist temples where the locals would ask for protection from the hazards of their risky craft. During his childhood, temples were TBH's playground. He was immersed in a world filled with traditional imagery of ancient sutra, fascinating tales and colorful frescos—a world that has been fading away and leaving few traces behind.

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His beautiful memories and a wish to preserve a precious heritage have been the source of inspiration for his first movie, “The Country of Summer Insects,” a 17-minute long animation that is the outcome of almost three years of meticulous work. We met with TBH in the temporary studio of his company INKMAN in northeast Beijing to view his movie and learn more about its elaborate production process.

In a storage room filled with gypsum boards, TBH shares, “I've always had a passion for animation, but it was not my major. I like painting and I studied printmaking at the Academy of Art in Hangzhou. 'The Country of Summer Insects' has been my first experience as an author and director and in fact my style is very different from what you see on TV or Hollywood movies. The aesthetic is closer to old paintings.” And indeed the production process has been different. The "The Country of Summer Insects" is entirely made of handmade drawings, done in the same technique as old fresco paintings, on gypsum boards that have been crafted in-house by TBH and his team. A total of 10,000 handcrafted boards were then scanned and edited to build this mesmerizing movie.

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"I started working on the script in 2009, when I first came to Beijing; back then I was trying to put together some insights I had since I was a kid," he says. "I worked on the script together with Xiong Lei and Wang Jian, and I’ve been working on the paintings with a very small group." He further notes that "the process was long and delicate, sometimes the boards cracked but we decided to keep them to enhance the feeling of old in the movie.”

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The intro is made with the ancient technique of tayin—a kind of stone-rubbing used to copy inscriptions. And it’s the prelude to one of the most fascinating stories by Zhuangzi, a taoist philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC. “Far, far away in the south, almost located in the end of sky, there was a country near the sea, named the 'Country of Summer Insects.' People who lived there only had three quarters of life, being born in spring and dead in autumn. A record in their historical books: 'Ice was the most precious thing in the world.' But after asking all people in the country, nobody knew what the ice was. A young, brave general decided to build a large ship to look for that ice.“

"Summer insects can't tell the feeling of ice," is a classical statement from Zhuangzi, and a paradox which often brought the philosopher to Western relativism; “Do not speak of the ocean to the frog that lives in the well. Do not speak of ice to summer insects that never lived in winter.”

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TBH uses the story to express his own experience, “Just like the characters in the animated film, they are brave and willing to explore the buzz of life, but their life lasts just one season, this is their ultimate limit. In front of the world, they are so small. And so we are as human beings; always confronting ourselves with a limited horizon.” This notion carries the animation and with it, great beauty permeates.

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"The Country of Summer Insects" will be be screened for the first time on 20 April in Guangzhou, along with an exhibition of the boards and items from the production process. The film will be presented in May at the International Short Film Oberhausen in Germany, and at Animafest in Zagreb in June.

Images courtesy of INKMAN

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