Valuable Lessons Learned: The Legend of Hei

This is a review of a film in the 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival. This year’s virtual festival technically ended on the 14th, but there’s still time to buy tickets or an all-access pass—a $100 pass extends the viewing time to March 21st.

I’m by no means an expert on Chinese film, animated or otherwise. However, when I’ve watched animated features from China at the 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival, I’ve often gotten the sense that they were trying to prove something, e.g. China’s ability to do mainstream animation all self-contained within itself, and not as outsourced work from other countries. It’s a situation where that desire can end up interfering with the pacing of a film, as if creators are producing demo reels disguised as movies. 

The Legend of Hei (2019) largely does not fall into this trap. It’s a visually impressive work whose splendor in the form of large environmental backgrounds and quick-paced supernatural action ultimately does not end up sabotaging its own narrative effectiveness. 

The main character of the story is a young spirit resembling a cat named Hei (or Luo Xiaohei), who winds up away from its home and who ends up getting picked up by another spirit named Storm’s End (Fengxi), who offers Hei a new home. When a human “enforcer” of the Spirit Guild named Infinity (Wuxian) shows up, Hei ends up being taken by Infinity. Forced to travel together with his captor, Hei learns that notions of “good” and “bad” are not as simple as he assumes. For much of the film, it can be kind of hard to tell where exactly everything is going, especially because it’s easy to confuse the many similarly handsome-yet-stoic characters for one another, but it all ends in a satisfying manner.

While watching, I kept thinking, “This really has a Line/Naver Webtoon aesthetic.” It’s a somewhat broad generalization, but the flat colors and rounded designs make for a look that resembles many of the comics on the online platform. Combined with numerous brief appearances by characters who seem like they’re supposed to be recognizable to a knowledgeable audience, and I began to wonder if the film was based on some existing work. I later found out that it was originally a flash animation by Chinese creator MTJJ and, indeed, a later webtoon. The fact that The Legend of Hei has such humble origins lends credence to my feeling that this film had some real passion behind it that keeps it honest.

As mentioned, the fight choreography is downright amazing, and is one of the film’s best features. The action is never confusing or feels bogged down by too much flourish or not enough, and everyone moves with a sense of purpose. Everything flows very well, and if you’re someone who enjoys having lots of battling from beginning to end, it really doesn’t disappoint. More importantly, the fighting also doesn’t come at the expense of the narrative, with the two weaved together well.

The NYICFF’s showing of The Legend of Hei is dubbed in English, and the English names provided above are all used within the film itself, with the exception of Hei. It’s an interesting choice, to give the viewers the understanding that the characters’ names mean something, as media from China and Japan will often do the opposite for English translations—how many people know that “Naruto” means “Maelstrom”? Also worth nothing is that the English cast features many Asian voice actors, an action that flies in the face of the marginalization of Asians in Hollywood and mainstream entertainment media. As for the acting itself, it was overall decent, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that listening to the original Chinese voices would convey noticeably different impressions of the characters despite not being able to hear them until later. When I later looked up the Chinese trailer, it confirmed my suspicion. There’s something about the delivery that makes them almost feel like different people, whether it’s Hei himself sounding more Steven Universe-ish in English than kitten-like, or how the delivery among the more stoic characters seems to convey a greater emotionality in Chinese.

I also found out that there’s a Japanese dub version, and they really pulled out the big guns for that voice cast: Hanazawa Kana, Miyano Mamoru, and Sakurai Takahiro all headline the film in Japan, and I suspect it makes for another interesting and slightly different experience.

While I don’t think The Legend of Hei is the total package, the film has a lot of merits that bring it all together into a satisfying and rewarding experience. It’s the best Chinese animated film I’ve seen yet, and it comes across as a work that, rather than trying to prove the worth of Chinese animation, wants to tell a story all on its own. The Legend of Hei exudes a confidence that avoids the pitfalls of arrogance and desperation, resulting in a strong and accessible work.