Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review of Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia)

The Czech Republic rarely gets the acknowledgement for its cinematic achievements that it deserves, but Hungary, where delightful obscurities apparently hang from the trees, is perhaps even more overlooked. My positive experiences with “Kontroll,” “My Twentieth Century” and “The Werckmeister Harmonies” encouraged me to rummage further into their rich film history. Some of the greatest rewards have been the works of Miklos Jansco and the monumental Bela Tarr film “Satantango” (recently released by Facets).

Falling further down the rabbit hole, I found references to a Hungarian animation called “Son of the White Mare” (1981) aka “Fehérlófia.” Occasional fan-subbed DVDs pop up on Ebay, but I didn’t have much luck. Fortunately the film has been uploaded onto youTube and the subtitles can be found here. I formatted the srt file into a 7 page transcript, printed it and followed along while I watched. Due to the minimal dialog I found this relatively easy, but to be honest, you could probably just enjoy the visuals alone. I’ll provide a plot summary which might lend some context to anyone interested:

The white mare seeks refuge from the gods in a mountainous tree and gives birth to three humanoid sons. The youngest is told by his celestial father that if he breastfeeds until he is 21, it will endow him with the strength to pull the world-tree from its 77 roots. Thus he earns his name, Treeshaker, and inadvertently drains away his equestrian mother’s life.

To fulfil her dying wish, Treeshaker recruits his brothers Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber and descends into the underworld. There, with the help of a goblin, he rescues three princesses from rotating palaces protected by multi-headed dragons. With the maidens elevated to safety, Treeshaker rides a griffin back to surface by feeding it 12 oxen, 12 barrels of wine and his own leg.

If the plot sounds outlandish, I should mention that it’s based in Hungarian folk legend and is told in the fashion of an epic fable or ancient odyssey. There’s lots of explicit numerology (3s, 7s, 12s), arcane symbolism and superhuman events. Often the actual content of the story seems ludicrous to someone without the proper cultural background, but it remains simple enough to follow the action. For example, I don’t understand why goblins get their powers from flowing billowy beards or how one manages to forge a severed beard into an indestructible sword, but it’s surprisingly clear that such is the case.

Much of the fun of the story comes from its unabashed disregard for classical physics. Like in Greek or Roman mythology, feats of colossal strength are presented on a scale no mortal could reasonably accomplish, but the hyperbole is presented in good humor, with the lessons learned focusing on the importance of determination, confidence and bravery [and breastfeeding].

Director Marcell Jankovics refracts the story through modern times, adding layers of psychedelic fantasy and philosophical undertones. One such imposition is a seven-headed dragon that takes the form of a heavily-armed robotic tank. It’s trigger-happy, smoke-belching assault set on a silver field is some sort of crazy anti-war allegory. It’s more monstrous brother happens to be a twelve-headed dragon that takes the form of a city skyline, which morphs through a series of pixilated formations and rises inexorably from its own rubble. I think that has something to do with the evils of industrialized civilization, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell what the hell it all meant.

As the descriptions so far might have hinted, Jankovics’ visual wizardry is absolutely mind-blowing. The artwork departs from conventions with avant-garde abandon, mesmerizing the viewer with shifting, spinning, blistering, flaring bursts of Day-Glo color. The three sons of the white mare have flaming orb-heads that emit glowing halos and dress in contrasting theme colors (yellow/orange, red/orange and blue/yellow) that shift and merge. The backdrops are whirling kaleidoscopes of splintered branches, patterned embroidery and wonderland geography.

While naysayers are likely to dismiss the phosphorescent phantasmagoric eye-candy as hippy fuel for acid trips, it’s hard to deny the ambition and artistry in the visual design. Always in motion, “The Son of the White Mare” redefines traditional editing with visual effects that blend, unfold or morph into new scenes, often presenting bizarrely distorted perspectives and unpredictable transformations. Even given the folktale rhythm of the story (where everything happens in batches of three), the films seems to hurtle forward with creative energy.

The music is keyed to the action with grandiose space-age electronica, but probably more important to the atmosphere is the voice-acting. Whether it’s the raspy whisper of god, the cheerful bravado of stonecrusher, the sing-song drone of the griffin or the booming proclamations of a dragon, the voices go a long way towards defining the personalities of the characters. No understanding of Hungarian is required.

This neglected masterpiece is essential viewing for alternative animation buffs and should really be brought out in a pristine home release. I’m not laying any bets though.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

4 comments:

Patrick said...

"While naysayers are likely to dismiss the phosphorescent phantasmagoric eye-candy as hippy fuel for acid trips..."

Huh.

Milena Djordjevic-Kisacanin said...

In how many languages can I thank you? Thank you, gracias, merci beaucoup, arigato, takk, spasibo, hvala, and (of course) köszönöm! If you hadn't shone a light on this gem, I would have missed more than an hour of pure animated bliss.

Could I return the favor? Try Cat Soup, an obscure but breathtaking little anime movie, 30 minutes, utterly surreal, but brilliant. The first time through, it's a bizarre adventure, the second time through it's a story about the transience of the human race and our relationship with nature. And it's on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWy2E36k0hs)

Thanks again! :)

FilmWalrus said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed Son of the Mare! It seems people either love it or find it eye-searing and headache-inducing. Obviously, I'm in the former camp. Also check out the director's Johnny Corncob, also on youtube.

Cat Soup is amazing! One of my all-time favorite animated shorts! You have fantastic taste :)

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