It’s not about the message you’ve told, but how you’ve chosen to tell it.
S He, a stop-motion animation from director and writer Shengwei Zhou, has to be one of the most self-assured, stunningly composed and remarkably inventive debut features ever made. To briefly encapsulate the story: in a cigarette factory, the men go to work and the women are detained in a birthing facility. Their offspring — if female — are transformed into men so they can be sent out into the field. One of the prisoners, enraged by the patriarchal bullshit she bears witness to, disguises herself as a man in order to feed her daughter and stay alive.
There’s just one thing: they’re shoes. The men and women — taking the form of dress shoes and high heels respectively — are shoes. This is a film about shoes.
Except it’s not, because the commentary on systemic sexism and workplace abuse is made abundantly clear from the beginning. This is an angry film, one which depicts rape and sexual assault with jaw-dropped exasperation, as it spotlights the lead heel’s cathartic and vengeful descent into a male-governed world. Take the opening scene for example, which is one of the best instances of visual storytelling I have ever seen; a totalitarian nightmare that enforces brash, repulsive, and deeply upsetting acts upon the heels hiding in their prisons. Nothing is left unscathed by Zhou’s stunning stop-motion, which opens with a colourful closet-like world where pegs buzz around in a dizzying state (meant to represent the classic housefly), socks bounce around in their knitted pods, and zipped up jackets inside buttoned up coats keep the high heels locked away.
The contrast of form to content is what allows S He to operate in the viscerally nauseating way it does; never once letting go until the gapingly slow fade to black alerts you that the damage is finally done. The animation itself embeds an almost playful quality in its creativity; where dialogue primarily consists of “oohs”, “ahhs” and other non-verbal expressions, as one can typically expect from other stop-motion works like Shaun the Sheep (2007-2016). It’s amusing in short bursts, which instantly knocks you off guard when the actions depicted on-screen from these pieces of fabric and leather are poles apart from cosy family content. It sometimes falls into the trap of being consistently bizarre in its overwhelming symbolic attacks without letting the simpler and more established ideas — such as the primary gender relationship established in the opening sequence — govern the narrative forward. However, for the type of story Shengwei Zhou is telling, mercilessness garners the greatest result.
You will never look at cherries the same way again. Please watch this movie.
S He will be playing on 23 February and 1 March at the Ritz Cinema and 22 February and 1 March at Lido Hawthorn as part of Fantastic Film Festival Australia.
George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @geekap42.