Film Review: ‘Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming’

window horses the poetic persian epiphany
Courtesy of TIFF

Director Ann Marie Fleming's rudimentary Stick Girl character uses poetry to cross xenophobic barriers in this whimsical cartoon.

A mixed-race Canadian poet travels to a poetry festival in Iran and discovers her own voice while opening herself to those of others in the whimsical, animated coming-of-ager “Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming.” Tapping a host of fellow animators to create a visually rich tapestry, director-writer-animator Ann Marie Fleming creates an entertaining, educational, and poignant tale about identify and imagination that is filled with stories and poetry. Overall, the film provides a counterweight to our xenophobic times, proving that human beings are more alike than unalike and that poetry can be relevant across millennia. Mongrel Media will give this popular fest selection a theatrical release across Canada in March 2017.

The only child of a Chinese mother and an Iranian father, Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh, also executive producer) has been raised from the age of seven by her over-protective Chinese grandparents (voiced by Nancy Kwan and Eddy Ko) in a series of Canadian cities following the death of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Now a naïve twentysomething, she works at a fast-food restaurant and writes poetry that she sings while playing the guitar. As the story starts, Rosie, a beret-wearing Francophile, has just self-published a book, “My Eye Full, Poems by a Person Who Has Never Been to France.”

Although Rosie thinks France is the land of her soul, another country, one where almost everyone is a poet, is destined to claim it, as she discovers when arriving at the international poetry festival in Shiraz. On the narrative level, Fleming completely nails the overwhelming quality of Iranian hospitality that foreigners experience and the great potential for gaffes because of cultural differences. On the visual level, her use of different animation styles and techniques capture Iran’s entrancing colors, sounds, and tastes. For instance, as Rosie opens the window in her hotel to the resonant sound of the morning call to prayer, little flying carpets of color shoot ecstatically from the minaret.

While the narrative of the film is presented in one particular style, the visuals accompanying the poems and the histories of Iranian poets Hafiz and Rumi were created by different artists. They both accentuate and blend the myriad of differences in cultures, philosophies, time frames, and poetry. The variety of styles and techniques also inject humor, such as the “degenerate art” style visualizing the inappropriate poem recited by the arrogant young German poet Dietmar (excellently voiced by Don McKellar).

At the festival, Rosie finds connections to both sides of her heritage. The exiled Chinese poet Di Di (Jun Zhu) provides her with lessons on both recent Chinese history and poetic style as well as the fateful difference between being a simple poet and a political man. Meanwhile, the many Iranians she encounters seek to prove to her that a Persian father could never have willingly abandoned his daughter.

It may be distracting to some viewers that the other characters are more fleshed out visually, while Rosie remains a “stick girl,” but once Rosie dons her black chador, her body is no longer an issue. Stick Girl is a character that Fleming created while in art school and she has appeared in a number of Fleming’s short animations and as an avatar for the director in “The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam,” an animated biography of Fleming’s magician great-grandfather. In a sense, Stick Girl’s unformed quality is perfect for the character of Rosie, who has been kept so isolated from life experience and even from the truth about her own parents.

The powerhouse voice cast assembled by multi-hypenate Fleming also includes Shohreh Aghdashloo as a Tehran U. professor who offers Rosie some wise advice and Payman Maadi (“A Separation”), who delivers a masterful interpretation of Rumi’s Masnevi. Even real-life contemporary poet Taylor Mali contributes a poem that he reads via his toon avatar. The gorgeous Middle Eastern soundtrack from composer Taymaz Saba sets the perfect mood.

Film Review: 'Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming'

Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 3, 2016. (Also in Annecy, Toronto, Busan Film Festivals.)  Running time: 89 MIN.

Production

(Animated - Canada) A Mongrel Media release of a Stickgirl Prods production in co-production with The National Film Board of Canada with the support of Telefilm Canada Feature Film Fund – Development Program, Creative BC Project Development Fund, Canadian Film Centre, Perfect Circle Productions, Joe Cruz, Rock-It Promotions, Indiegogo, Akademie Schloss Solitude. Produced by Ann Marie Fleming, Shirley Vercruysse, Michael Fukushima. Executive producer, Sandra Oh.

Crew

Directed, written by Ann Marie Fleming. Editors, Fleming, Ileana Pietrobruno, Jean-Denis Rouette; animators, Fleming, Kevin Langdale, Janet Perlman, Sadaf Amini, Bahram Javaheri, Dominique Doktor, Elissa Chee, Michael Mann, Jody Kramer, Kunal Sen, Louise Johnson, Lillian Chan, Younger Yang, Joe Chang, Ian Godfrey
Nathaniel Akin, Jester Coyote Animation Inc., Jesse Cote, Brad Gibson, Chloe Liu, Eben Sullivan, Patrick Dufresne, Prajay Mahta, Jacyntha Cadwell.

With

Sandra Oh, Ellen Page, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Don McKellar, Omid Abtahi, Navid Neghaban, Nancy Kwan, Eddy Ko, Payman Maadi, Jun Zhu. (English, Chinese, German, Farsi dialogue)

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