Bringing the Chinese cultural revolution to the screen, in less than seven-minutes, is no easy task, but it’s one that director Kayu Leung attacked with real vigour and passion. Growing up in Hong Kong, she was already familiar with a “relatively uncensored version” of this period in history, explaining that it’s impact on her family helped shape her cultural identity. So working on animated short Mao’s Mango Cult provided her not only with an opportunity to reflect on this traumatic past, but examine it in context with the present.
Featuring a unique art style, the narrative of Mao’s Mango Cult, written by Vivian Jiang, focuses on an equally unique situation to help its audience understand this particular era from China’s past. Detailing how communist leader Mao Zedong gifted replica wax mangoes, entombed in glass cases, to factory workers as a propaganda tool, Leung’s film goes on to discuss how this lead to the fruit be granted an almost sacred status, resulting in mandatory mango exhibitions and even death, for one man who remarked the mango “looked like a sweet potato”.
“This mango story felt unique, yet accessible enough to hook audiences into this tumultuous period in modern Chinese history”, Jiang states as we discuss the origins of Mao’s Mango Cult. Recognising the difficulties of bringing these troublesome times to the screen, centring the film around these gifted replica mangoes is a masterstroke, as it adds a level of absurdity and dark humour to a short that could have suffered from its bluntness. Once Leung and Jiang have gently welcomed their audience into the film through this premise, they use it as a starting point to expose both “a decade of painful, buried history” and the current situation in China – where the cultural revolution still can’t be discussed without restrictions.
“Introducing a horrific piece of history to an international audience is like a bitter pill”, Leung reveals, before adding that she felt “honoured and privileged to be able to make this film” as unfortunately she could never do that in her hometown “without consequences”. A sentiment Jiang agrees with: “I’m very thankful to be able to share a story that many people are prohibited from discussing openly in the PRC. Shedding light on the harm and trauma from that time can be a momentous step towards healing and restitution.”
As I mentioned earlier though, as a film Mao’s Mango Cult doesn’t only impress by bringing a little discussed slice of history to the screen, it’s also hard not be awed by its distinct aesthetic. Inspired by the “harsh black/white/red old-school propaganda posters” of the time, Leung’s visuals give the story a surreal nature, without ever being of detriment to its impact and its real-life implications. It truly feels like the perfect visual accompaniment for the storyline.
Admitting that she “progressed and refined” her craft throughout the production of the film, Mao’s Mango Cult should act as an attention-grabbing calling card for an animator who is currently looking for commercial representation. Building on the work she did for her Ecole MoPA grad film Louis’ Shoes, Leung looks like a real talent in the world of animation – one we’ll be keeping a close eye on in the years to come.