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68 min. Mandarin.

The woman speaks only in voiceover and is never seen. Her account is one of hardship, of a mother who died young, of a father sent to a farm for reform during the Cultural Revolution, of all the things the family lacked. Such things dance across the screen, bicycles, furniture, facades and smart interiors, yet the images stem from elsewhere, from photos found at flea markets across China, lifestyle brochures of the time, official documentaries. They come from different sources, but often look the same, as photographs are made to move and moving pictures slowed to a standstill: an unruly stream of animated images stopping, starting and changing direction, in time with the noise of the tapes being rewound on the soundtrack, with the music that blares and dies. The many gaps between the images mirror the gaps in the woman’s testimony, which is just as informed by dreams as it is by reality, dreams of all manner of animals and their violent demise, memories of dozing before the TV set, flickering figures from far away, warped by sleep and experience, in a living room akin to a cinema. Which are the images that tell the story of a country, the ones you see or the ones you don’t? (James Lattimer)

Lei Lei was born in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China in 1985. He studied Animation at Tsinghua University in Beijing, graduating in 2009. Since 2017, Lei Lei has worked in the Experimental Animation Faculty of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Breathless Animals is his first feature-length film.

The world of my parents, which I never imagined

Because of my work, I spent a lot of time away from my hometown, which is located in the south of China, and away from my family and closest relatives. I could not even attend the funerals of my grandparents because I was not in the country.
I now return to my hometown several times a year to visit my parents. Through our conversations, I notice that they harbour a lot more anxiety than I previously realised. I assume that, out of love for me, they simply did not express their concerns and worries about my life.
In rapidly developing countries like China, many young people like me leave their hometowns and families to pursue opportunities in faraway places such as a bigger city or even a foreign land. Many of these newcomers suffer from distress and anguish because of factors such as the rapid rate of urbanisation, a new and modern lifestyle, and cultural differences.
Young people work hard to integrate into the society in which they live and to keep up with current trends. In contrast, the life experiences of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations are considered outdated.
But is that really the case? Whenever I feel lost in a foreign land, I am overcome by the longing to see my family again. This is not so much a case of homesickness, but rather a desire to gain a better understanding of myself and my identity.
In the past few years, I have conducted many interviews with members of my family. These oral histories are like the broken fragments of a mirror or reflections on the surface of a lake. Taken together, they form a world that I never imagined.
This world may have nothing to do with history or reality, but it is true in every respect. You can feel the humidity in the air, the dust in the rooms, you can make out a person’s facial expression, imagine what an object feels like to touch. It is a world that my parents have recently lived in, where you can still feel the warmth of their bodies.
I put the many stories told to me by my family members into BREATHLESS ANIMALS. At the same time, in the film I experimented with images and sounds.
I hope that this film will help me better understand my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, as well as the shadows they cast on me. I want to understand the influence they have had on me, as well as the impact that greater historical circumstances and social transformations had on my entire family. But perhaps not all questions have a clear answer. (Lei Lei)

Conversation with Lei Lei: “Portraying history is not an exclusive privilege”

Question: How did you start working on BREATHLESS ANIMALS? What first motivated you to make this film?

Lei Lei: In the past few years, I have been buying old photos and magazines from flea markets and developing stories from them. BREATHLESS ANIMALS did not come out of the blue, it is a continuation of this work. Family oral histories have fascinated me for some time now. I feel that they are particularly evocative and close to reality. With BREATHLESS ANIMALS, I was less interested in representing reality than in developing a fiction in which the protagonists do not play themselves. Interestingly, when images and dialogues are both fictional and ‘remakes’ of reality, a kind of mirror of reality emerges. It is precisely this kind of mirror that I wanted to create with this film. That viewers can perceive reality and history in this mirror’s reflection is, in my opinion, a fruitful process.

The film’s plot derives from a dialogue between you and a woman who, we only come to understand later, is your mother. Why did you want her to be the narrator?

My conversations with my mother are easy and informal, and do not require much effort. Such conditions for a conversation are not easy to replicate. Not revealing my mother’s identity at the beginning creates an interesting effect in the second part of the film: viewers can suddenly access a different perspective and replay the images and dialogues in their mind’s eye.

How did the conversations take place?

We had the conversations when I visited last summer and they unfolded very naturally. I had no intention of doing an interview. Instead, I just threw out some keywords, such as ‘bicycle’, ‘television’, ‘dream’, and so on. I got these words from old magazines. My mother then expanded on these keywords with anecdotes. The conversations lasted about four hours and took place over two nights.

Why did you choose to talk about this specific historical period?

I am actually not interested in a specific timeframe. I even hope that a few ‘errors’ have slipped into the chronicle. The images I show in BREATHLESS ANIMALS came from the period between the 1950s and the 1980s. They are not ordered chronologically, they are presented in a chaotic way. I was not interested in reconstructing a ‘pure’ and ‘certain’ version of a history unknown to me. As an artist, I use collage to create relationships between images. If one were to allow every cinemagoer to reconstruct a history unknown to them, everyone would come up with a different version.
Between 1950 and 1980, my parents’ generation lived through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement, and the reintroduction of university entrance exams. These events had a profound effect on their lives and changed their fate.
I was born in 1985, so I am rather unfamiliar with these historical events. I did not acquire much historical knowledge through my formal education and also later I did not concern myself closely with historical details. This is why I chose not to describe the historical background. I am primarily concerned with history’s impact on individuals and their families. As such, it is not important if viewers are unfamiliar with Chinese history, since the film revolves mainly around humans and their emotions, rather than follow a historical narrative.

In your opinion, how can a personal and artistic vision be used to represent a reality that no longer exists?

I do not believe that a few photographs and recorded interviews are sufficient to illustrate history. Therefore, portraying history is not an exclusive privilege. And yet, a film director can exert a domineering influence. The flow of information is one-way: directors express themselves and audiences listen. When it comes to historical events or topics, filmmakers can convey their opinion. They have the monopoly of communication. I believe that modern filmmakers should relinquish such sovereignty and, in order to create more democracy in cinema, give the right to speak back to the audience. For me, moving images are a means of communication. Viewers can come up with their own interpretation to complete their understanding of reality. I think this is what dialogue is in cinema. This is what constitutes a contemporary film.

(Interview: See-Ray Studio)

Production Lei Lei. Production company See-Ray Studio (Beijing, People's Republic of China). Written and directed by Lei Lei. Editing Lei Lei. Music Lei Lei. Sound design Lei Lei. Sound Lei Lei.

World sales Asian Shadows
Premiere February 11, 2019, Forum


2009: Pears or Aliens (4 min.), The Universe Cotton (4 min.), Magic Cube and Ping-Pong (5 min.). 2010: Hululu Honglonglong Hualala (6 min.), This is LOVE (3 min.). 2011: My... My... (5 min.). 2012: Big Hands Oh Big Hands, Let It Be Bigger and Bigger (6 min.). 2013: Recycled (5 min.). 2014: This Is Not a Time to Lie (4 min.). 2015: Missing One Player (4 min.), Books on Books (7 min.). 2016: Hand-Colored No.2 (5 min.). 2019: Breathless Animals.

Photo: © Breathless Animals Production

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur