A ridiculously satisfying underdog sports story set in the highly specialized arena of Chinese lion dancing, “I Am What I Am” features a plot familiar enough that it could have been generated by computer, peppered with specifics unique enough that the experience consistently manages to surprise. The result is an inspired mix of engineering and ingenuity, distinguished by some of the most human character animation this side of the uncanny valley — not realistic, mind you, but relatable, and a welcome departure from the cutesy cartoony-ness of Pixar and its American ilk, produced at a mere fraction of the budget.
World premiering as a work in progress at Los Angeles’ Animation Is Film Festival, this “Karate Kid”-like crowd-pleaser from “Kung Food” creator Haipeng Sun represents another breakthrough for China’s fast-growing animation scene. Packed with culturally specific humor, the toon is clearly intended to serve local audiences (on the Douban and Maoyan platforms, it proved to be 2021’s highest-rated domestic release after opening in China on Dec. 8), though foreigners should also appreciate such a relatable glimpse behind the mask of the colorful custom, in which teams of trained dancers steer the two-person costume across tall pedestals and other challenging obstacles.
A sheepish, scrawny boy with a girl’s name, teased by others for looking like a “sick cat,” Juan lives alone in a rural town in Guangdong province while his parents work in the big city. His self-esteem is nearly nonexistent until one day he witnesses a mystery contestant outmaneuver the local bullies in a lion dance competition — a thrilling “capture the flag”-style game set on an elaborate bamboo scaffolding, which the virtual camera observes with all the dynamism of a wuxia movie. The winner turns out to be a girl his age, also named Juan, who gifts the kid her lion mask and gives him the motivation he needs to give the sport a try.
The next half-hour will seem fairly familiar, as Juan (the boy) enlists fellow-reject friends Cat and Dog to form a team, then seeks out former champion Huang Feihong, now a salted-fish seller, to coach them to victory. The movie stacks one montage after another, alternating between obvious and unexpected jokes along the way, to compress the kind of physical training that would normally take a decade or more. After Juan wins an early local competition, the plot takes an unexpected turn, as Juan does the honorable thing in order to help his parents, bowing out of the next level and instead moving to Shanghai to earn money for the family.
In moments like this, the film walks the line of feel-good propaganda, reinforcing how honorable and obedient citizens are expected to behave, instead of celebrating the kind of personal glory to which American audiences are more accustomed (although rest assured that U.S. toons feel like a kind of behavioral brainwashing to foreign auds). Screenwriter Zelin Li gives these gangly kids memorable personalities, which prove all the more lively through the endearingly exaggerated way they’ve been rendered — to say nothing of the elegant, accelerated lion dance moves.
In China, the film drew criticism for its character designs, which include small, squinted eyes (reportedly done to differentiate the style from Japanese animation) and unflattering proportions (one of Juan’s pals is a Fat Albert-style stereotype). But the truth is, the faces here are so expressive, they raise the experience above its relatively formulaic plot, reminding that animation is a bit like lion dancing, as artists hide behind elaborate avatars and try to convey behavior and emotions the general public can recognize. The backgrounds are especially impressive, including a golden-hued forest with its crepe-paper canopy of saffron red leaves, demonstrating just how far computer animation has come.
While “I Am What I Am” clearly speaks to various national-identity issues, the feelings represented are universal. There’s something to be said for how it celebrates characters from the bottom of society, like working-class Juan. It’s still quite uncommon to encounter a Chinese film that centers ordinary people, as opposed to mythical and magical heroes (like “Ne Zha”), but easy to understand why that would resonate with audiences.
Of course, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if Juan didn’t have a last-minute change of heart, showing up to compete in the big Shanghai competition. Kudos to the team for conceiving a surprising way for that to play out, where winning isn’t nearly as important as Juan proving his own value to himself.