On March 5, 2002, as residents of the Northeastern Chinese city of Changchun were settling in for the evening, an unprecedented thing happened. For the thousands of households tuned to any one of the eight state-run cable TV channels, a burst of static, followed by a prerecorded video defending the outlawed and widely vilified spiritual practice known as Falun Gong. These events and their bloody aftermath are brought to vivid life, partly in standard live-action documentary segments and partly in thrillingly animated sequences, in Jason Loftus’ “Eternal Spring,” Canada’s Mandarin-language submission for the international feature Oscar.
More affectingly personal than politically comprehensive, the film is mediated through the eyes and artistry of Daxiong, a renowned comic book artist born, like the movement’s founder and therefore Falun Gong itself, in Changchun. Forced to flee to Canada in the renewed round of persecution that followed the TV takeover (despite himself playing no part in it), Daxiong was conflicted about the wisdom of the hijacking. As a Falun Gong adherent, he sympathized with the motivations, while also being angry that the stunt attracted even more repressive attention from a regime that would, as he puts it, “kill a thousand people just to catch the right one.”
And so, after the dizzyingly superb opening 3D animation, that sweeps and curls through the tenements and alleyways of downtown Changchun as the hijackers are mercilessly pursued, the film’s wider arc is Daxiong himself coming to terms with the circumstances of his exile, largely though meeting some of those more closely involved. These encounters, to which Daxiong always brings along a sketchpad to outline specific reminiscences on the fly (and it is fascinating to watch his pen-and-ink skills in action) form the basis of the film’s animated sections. And what emerges from those is little less than a mythologized heist movie, worthy of a Star Wars comic (such as the 2011 Boba Fett adventure Daxiong illustrated) in which a ragtag crew of idealists, complete with funky nicknames and secret hideouts, take on an evil Empire, and thereafter suffer heinous consequences.
In keeping with Daxiong’s comic book sensibilities — rooted in his childhood fascination with the borderline superheroic lore surrounding 12th-century Chinese General Yue Fei — “Eternal Spring” does not traffic much in shades of gray. “Big Truck,” a onetime thug apparently reformed by his adoption of Falun Gong, who was a key member of the takeover team, is portrayed as a gentle giant martyred to the cause, while Liang Zhenxing, the family-man mastermind behind the hijacking who died in prison in 2010 after prolonged bouts of severe torture, emerges as little less than a saint. The dolorous roll-call of the fates of the captured hijackers is given even more emotional heft by Daxiong’s interview with “Mr. White,” the only actual hijacker to escape China following his release from prison. Now living in South Korea, Mr. White’s anguished testimony, and his guilt at signing a recantation of his beliefs under threat of further torture, is powerfully moving. As is the moment when he gazes at Daxiong’s laptop screen, where the artist has drawn a scene from his Changchun childhood, and both men are united suddenly in homesickness for a country, a city and a state of innocence to which they can probably never return.
Such real-world encounters are highly effective, but also highlight the film’s real-world omissions. Whereas other celebrated animated docs such as “Waltz with Bashir” and “Flee” contained their narratives within an animated framework, “Eternal Spring’s” brilliantly illustrated sections sit less convincingly within the metatextual framework of a classical, live-action documentary. In that context, the film’s willful incuriosity about any of the Falun Gong movement’s less savory aspects becomes painfully apparent. There is no mention of its affiliation with The Epoch Times, a Trump-supporting media outlet known as a hotbed of far-right conspiracist misinformation, and a strange myopia exists around the tenets of Falun Gong spirituality itself, which are reduced to their most blandly benign slogans about truthfulness and compassion.
Not that there could ever be even a partial justification for the countless instances of grotesque human rights violations perpetrated by China’s Communist Party against Falun Gong practitioners. But the avoidance of such issues does leave “Eternal Spring” feeling less than complete as an account of an event that has more complicated and far-reaching consequences than can be comfortably contained inside any inked outline, however skillfully penned. Within the narrower confines of one talented artist’s reckoning with his birth nation’s painful recent history, however, it remains a stirring piece of work, not only for the dark events it so dramatically reimagines, but for the glimpses at another side of Daxiong’s fondly remembered hometown. In this Changchun — which literally translates to “eternal spring” — more whimsical activism such as helium balloons rising through the streets or leaflets fluttering down like blossoms, suggest that even in the most repressive environment, the hope of religious freedom springs eternal.