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S He
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by Jay Seaver

"Grind your heel into the oppressor!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I don't know exactly what I expected of "SHe", and truth be told I'm not exactly sure what I got. It's a striking stop-motion film, the sort of abstracted, found-object stop-motion that is almost entirely confined to short subjects, only done as a feature and taking a sharp turn from the delight one might feel upon seeing colorful, imaginative stills from it almost from the get-go. You've probably never seen anything like it, and it can be fascinatingly tricky to process.

Taking place in a world seemingly made of discarded clothing and other objects, populated by shoe creatures, SHe opens with a starkly dystopian reality, with the lady shoes imprisoned, let out only just long enough to give birth, and if the literal fruit of their loins sends forth something pink, it is forcibly transformed into a man's shoe. One of these high-heeled pumps fights back, killing her oppressor and then, needing to support herself and her daughter, dons that loafer's corpse to go work in a factory. But when she has a hard time fitting in thereā€¦

In building this fantastical world, filmmaker Zhou Shengwei doesn't necessarily lean away from certain tropes - the adult lady shoes are for the most part red, high heels, and have a literal garden growing out the back, with little flower buds for eyes; the guy shoes are black, filled with tools, and studded with metallic bits to show just how masculine they are - and there's something about that which doesn't entirely sit right when given a little thought. Enslavement and abuse is clearly presented as wrong, but Zhou doesn't always do a lot to subvert the attitudes toward gender roles that keep them entrenched. Its satire can be brutally sharp, but not always particularly nuanced.

Which is no bad thing, because freed from the need for any sort of subtlety, Zhou's film can often be brutal, and for all that how everything on-screen is happening with shoes and weird eyeball creatures in a factory that is apparently assembling and disassembling cigarettes, or maybe because of this, the brutality of what is on display - the violence that comes out of misogyny and transphobia and every other nasty impulse these creatures reflect - is unflinching. The film starts out as a sort of feminist allegory but by the middle it feels like the sort of body horror that would definitely not be for the squeamish had it been presented as live-action, and can certainly display the power to make a viewer more than a bit uncomfortable. The center of the movie is legitimately unsettling, taking full advantage of the lack of any limits Zhou has on destruction or transformation and enhanced by an intense score by Yuan Sihan.

At times, it pushes hard enough that one might occasionally scratch one's head at just what, exactly, Zhou is trying to get at here, which can occasionally be a tricky issue with this sort of art, especially if one doesn't necessarily know the entire context of where the artist is coming from: You can latch onto a part of a metaphor early on and then tie yourself in knots trying to make the rest of the film fit. That's especially easy to do here, as there are likely times when Zhou isn't necessarily trying to make a point, but create memorable animation, occasionally letting a scene play out when the live action might have cut a bit, or swerving into a slightly different style or reveling in the sheer weirdness of whatever phantasmagoria he has conceived of existing in this world. At a certain point, one just has to go for the ride, and Zhou is talented and focused enough as a filmmaker to keep the viewer on board.

He and his team also do tremendous work on the animation. Stop-motion is a finicky process that allows for relatively few shortcuts, but in cases like this tends to amplify great design, and there's rarely a moment when SHe is less than stunning. The motion has a bit of a stutter at times, a technique that makes it a bit easier for the brain to process shoes doing un-shoe-like things without rejecting it because they glide too smoothly across the screen, but never in a manner that makes the animation feel haphazard or rushed. The design is incredible, more so when one considers the bit in the end credits that says 80% of the material came from waste, and there's an impressive amount of character to these creatures, even when in disguise or growing up.

There are points where "SHe" is rough, but far more when it is inventive, and I'd love to see it again in part to dive deeper into the bits that didn't quite work for me on my first go, to see what they reveal with a bit more study. I have no idea when I'll get the opportunity - I suspect that relatively few distributors are looking for the hot new violent piece of Chinese art-house animation - but I suspect that second viewing will be just as rewarding.

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originally posted: 07/19/19 02:13:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shengwei Zhou

Written by
  Shengwei Zhou

  Fuyang Lv
  Shengwei Zhou

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