Ray Ray's New Film "Silver Bird And Rainbow Fish" Navigates the Personal Side of Chinese History

Chinese animator, artist, and musician Lei Lei has been making films for over a decade. Using a mixed media approach that combines cut-outs, collage, and drawing, Lei Lei's vibrant candy-colored stories about love and diversity quickly gained critical acclaim. Since then, Ray Ray has firmly established himself as one of the most refreshing and unique artists in the animation world.

Beginning with Recycled (co-directed with Thomas Sauvin) and its follow-up Hand Coloured #2 (Hand Coloured #2), Ray Ray's work took a new direction. While his early works always incorporated elements of collage, in his later works he has expanded his collage practice by incorporating hundreds of found photographs collected at flea markets in China. In both works, Lei Lei turns from fantasy narratives to a kind of resuscitation of personal Chinese stories, often suppressed, censored, or obliterated by China's turbulent policies.

His latest film, the American-Dutch co-production Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish, continues his exploration of Chinese history, this time visiting his own family roots. Based on interviews with his father and grandfather (who died before the film was completed), Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish tells the story of four-year-old Jiaqi (Lei Lei's father). After his mother dies, his father (Lei Lei's grandfather) is forced to leave him and his sister in an orphanage while he looks for work in the countryside. They are eventually reunited by the new woman in their lives.

"Silver Birds and Rainbow Fish" is Ray Ray's most visually and conceptually ambitious film, made on a modest budget of approximately $900,000. Straddling the line between animation and documentary, blurring the lines between personal memory, history, and fiction (many of the photographs are not of Ray Ray's family), he blends documentary photography, collage elements, hand painting, and clay to take us back to a rather chaotic 1960s He takes us back to China.

Through this approach, Ray Ray acts as a kind of animated Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together forgotten and erased voices, faces, and experiences to tell a story that is at once deeply personal and relatable to many who experienced a similar, sometimes tumultuous existence in China. It tells a story that is inspiring. Equally interesting is that while the film is dominated by male voices, the women (especially Leilei's step-grandmother) prove to be the true pillars of strength.

"Actually, the two animals refer to the two female characters in the film," Lei Lei said in an interview with Zoom. 'Translated into English, the original Chinese title means the second and third mothers. Finding the name in English was very difficult. One day, 'Silver Bird and the Rainbow Fish' popped into my head. I think it's very lovely and romantic."

The film's aesthetic has its roots, curiously, in Quebec City, Canada. I had a residency there and was going to make a short film based on an interview I did with my grandfather."

Ray Ray brought his colorful collection of clay with him to tinker with during the long, dark, and dreary Canadian winter. 'Clay is something totally new to me. Before I went to Quebec City, I had no idea what kind of material I would use in this film. I knew that the film was about my family history, but I didn't have any accessible photographs or home movies. Then I thought I could make the mountains, rivers, and people with my own hands, in clay."

Not surprisingly, given the lack of documentation, most of the documentary photographs used in the film are not of Leilei's family. With the exception of the photo albums at the beginning and end of the film, the photos are all from other people. They are photographs collected at second-hand markets."

This ambiguity between private and public, family and state elevates The Silver Bird and the Rainbow Fish from a strictly personal family diary. It is not the story of one family, but of many Chinese families or people who have experienced restrictive governments.

However, the film is not a heavy-handed exploration of individual or collective social and cultural history. Ray Ray's comic tendencies appear frequently in Silverbird. In a playful scene in which Ray-Ray must pause his interview with his father, rather than just cut to the silence between, Ray-Ray plays a tape while the audience and his father wait for Ray-Ray to return. 'I had a lot of time to communicate with my family and get to know our background, and I think that's why I had the freedom I did. I don't stand on stage and tell everyone my story. This was a shared experience between my family and the audience."

Grandfather then gives Ray Ray a brief comment on the early short cut: "Nice work, but not good enough."

These playful moments and the obvious affection between family members give the film a uniquely playful, intimate, and almost interactive atmosphere. Throughout the film, the audience feels like part of a lively conversation, like a seatmate at a table in some pub, listening to the masters who casually regale the audience with fragmented stories from the past.

And of course, these conversations between grandfather, father, and son were, and still are, very meaningful to Reiley. 'It was probably around 2017 or 2018 that my grandfather saw part of the film, but he wasn't feeling well. Later, after the film was completed, he returned to his hometown and watched it with my father. My father liked it very much. He said he had never seen animation like this before."


In the spirit of collage, Ray Ray was also able to create a special moment for his father. He said, "By cutting out my father's voice and placing it alongside my grandfather's, I was able to create the impression that they were having a new conversation. My father was very emotionally involved in this part of the story. He said it was a beautiful thing to bring my grandfather back to life"


After working on the film for six years, Ray Ray is pleased with the results. If "Recycle" is very different from "Dis is Love" (2010), I think "Silverbird" is trying to bring a different approach. I keep thinking about my cinematic language and how I use clippings and collages with archival documentary material. So I'm happy to be able to complete this project. It's like a promise I made to myself."

"Silver Birds and Rainbow Fish" will be screened this week at the Annecy Animation Festival (June 13-18) in the Feature Competition.

An earlier version of this article quoted the budget for "Silver Bird And Rainbow Fish" as $57,500, which has been corrected to the correct budget confirmed by the film's producers.