SIFF: The Legend of Hei Subverts Expectations
Playing this week at the Seattle International Film Festival, The Legend of Hei exists in a surprising plane of grays, subverting the traditional manichean morality of family-friendly, animated movies. Developed from a webtoon by Chinese artist MTJJ - The Legend of Luo Xiaohei - and built with the same flash animation style, this prequel film weaves a non-traditional web from the basic trappings of a superhero-esque origin story.
The legend of Hei - the eponymous, child-like spirit blessed with a power he must come to understand and control if our world is to survive (sound familiar?) - is really the legend of two worlds at odds, each with its own designated champion, the effective angel and devil on Hei’s shoulders. In a smart story-telling gimmick, MTJJ tells his tale through the virginal eyes of Hei, depicting a set of opposing forces that seem black-and-white at first, only to grow murkier as the film’s immature protagonist learns more about his world.
Hei is cast out of his home in the forest and consigned to back alleys and bullies. When he’s rescued and cared for by a rebellious spirit, Hei is set up to believe in a traditional humans vs. spirits paradigm. But after being kidnapped by a human representing the Guild - a group of spirits dedicated to human-spirit relations - Hei slowly realizes things aren’t as simple as they seem. MTJJ invokes concerns of modern-day ecoterrorism, infusing the eventual villainous spirits’ mission with an ends-justify-the-means ethos.
The animation is sharp and quick, a mostly simplistic and conservative style that prioritizes information servicing over visual awe. And MTJJ’s filmmaking style is built to complement that approach: the animator rarely lingers on a single shot, instead opting for quick cuts and a fast-moving narrative that doesn’t give us time to notice the broad strokes in the background. It’s a style that slightly lets down the narrative’s focus on our relationship with nature - imagine Princess Mononoke without the lush, detailed portraits of the environment that has been so callously destroyed by man.
Ultimately, The Legend of Hei is best when it leans into its strangeness. There’s a thin stream of farcical humor running through it, including an almost-unbelievable visual gag between two minor characters that’s so sudden I almost fell off my couch laughing. It doesn’t apologize for its overly intricate mythology, and MTJJ exercises patience while unfurling it. And with the exception of an early face-off in the woods, the action scenes are well-choreographed and easy to follow. Though it may not contain the level of sophistication buried into recent kid-friendly Pixar efforts, The Legend of Hei has something to offer everyone.