Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2020 12:55 pm 
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Hungarian psychedelic animation, new online release in 4K restoration

Son of the White Mare is a famous Hungarian animated film that hasn't been available in this country for years. It's unquestionably a period magnum opus of the animator's art. It tells an elemental folk tale of the world's beginnings. The throbbing, brightly-colored images are of the kind usually associated with hallucinogenic drug experience: many shapes radiate out from the center; the composition is often symmetrical. You might associate all this with the seventies, a hypertrophied refinement of what's associated with the sixties. Perhaps it waited till 1981 for more sophisticated technique. The images are impressive for their constant motion and vivid color. Perhaps they evoke for you the divine power that's behind the story. But the fact that, as Caitlin Kennedy wrote on Film Inquiry last year, the film is "comfortable absolutely screaming its story at the audience," while it dazzles the viewer may not best serve the archaic story material, which combines several different creation myths. A radically simple style like that of On-Gaku: Our Sound ( Kengi Iwaisawa, 2019), seen at Japan Cuts recently, might have been just as good, or better.

Anyway, what we've got is what the blurb calls a "swirling, color-mad maelstrom of mythic monsters and Scythian heroes" that's "part-Nibelungenlied, part-Yellow Submarine" and illuminated by "jagged bolts of lightning" (jig-zag shapes are a favorite) and immersed in "rivers of blue, red, gold and green." Note, however: the artists favor flat colors, without the 3-D effect graded tones convey. Nonetheless in its 4K restoration, the film looks glorious. Sometimes the visual style resembles Eastern European screen printed or lithographed poster art, and it is endlessly inventive, especially in the second half, when the hero is exploring the Underworld.

The set-up might, frankly, have been beyond the makers of On-Gaku It begins with a "massive cosmic oak" standing at the gates to the Underworld and holding seventy-seven dragons in its roots. A("dazzling") white mare goddess gives birth successively to three offspring. The third born becomes the dominant one, Fanyüvő (Treeshaker) who through trials and effort becomes stronger than his two brothers, Kőmorzsoló (Stonecrumbler) and Vasgyúró (Ironkneader), a godlike blacksmith. It's been said the story is "based on the tales the ancient horse-lords told their children before they went off to wage bloody war across the steppes with one another." It depicts mythical ancestors born of a giant mare.

What follows is a beautiful, resonant tale. The brothers are successively tested by Hétszűnyű Kapanyányi Monyók (Sevenwinged Skullsized Gnome), an evil spirit that comes from the tree roots. Two are cheated out of their sustenance, the kasha they are preparing for each other in a giant cauldron while also making rope as the other brothers hunt for the tree's entrance to the Underworld. Fanyüvő sees through the ruse. He traps Hétszűnyű's beard in the tree hollow. To escape, Hétszűnyű tears down the tree - revealing the entrance to the Underworld. Only Fanyüvő - Treeshaker - goes down there, and discovers three dragons and three princesses. He send them all back to be bides for himself and his two brothers. (The first one, who goes bare-breasted, is the coolest and most startlingly sexy.)

Son of the White Mare is admirably well paced. At its peak, its visual inventions are almost overwhelming, totally an acid trip, verging toward the abstract, growing more and more stylized, evoking various styles, but never losing its commanding visual unity. The complexity grows gradually, reaching peak complexity only when the hero has come near the end of his journey.

Fanyüvő subdues the three ogres/dragons and sets free the grateful princesses (who'll always be in his debt, by the way). But then after he sends the three princesses up out of the Underworld with the cauldron and the rope, he's stuck himself. He can only return through helping a griffin whose nestlings are menaced by a snake, and in the long journey must make a terrible sacrifice. But he is rewarded by the griffin chicks, and after forgiving his two brothers, whom he blames for being trapped below, they all marry the princesses. And live happily ever after.

Son of the White Mare never falters, even if there may be moments when one isn't quite sure what the images on screen convey. It is a glorious illustration of animated film's unique capacity to create endlessly inventive imaginary worlds.

Marcell Jankovics' 1974 short Sisyphus was Oscar-nominated; his 1977 one The Struggle won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. He had made Hungary's first animated feature, the 1973 János Vitéz. The latter is available here in a new 4K restoration.

Son of the White Mare (its US representative Michael Lieberman reports) has been restored in 4K using the original 35mm camera negative and sound elements by Arbelos in collaboration with the Hungarian Film Archive.

Son of the White Mare/Fehérlófia, 81 mins., opened in Hungary Oct. 1981, in the US July 1983, and in numerous other countries (Japan, UK, France) in 1983 and 1984. It showed at Melbourne Aug. 2015 and Fantasia July 2019, and was rereleased (says IMDb) in the US Mar. 2020. Its US online release is Aug. 21, 2020.


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