A lively portrait of life with children’s ghosts

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In the countryside of China’s Anhui Province, where Weijia Ma’s father grew up, much of life centered around ponds. There, the women washed the vegetables and did the laundry; little children played in the water, swam and caught fish. Ma grew up in a nearby small town and came back every year for the Chinese New Year and the Qingming Festival, a spring day when people honor their deceased loved ones, to see her family and sweep the graves of their ancestors. Water was also the place where life disappeared: old villagers told him stories of unwanted little girls abandoned by rivers and ponds.

In his film “Step Into the River”, the 31-year-old animation artist vividly recreates a village similar to that of his childhood memories, with rustic beauty and evoking a poetic past, but not distant: a yard with line-dried laundry; a kite in the shape of a goldfish flying high in the sky; the sound of branches creaking as the wind crosses a field. But the two little girls at the center of the story have dark memories of the early events that shaped their childhood. One of them, born after the death of a brother, is voluntary and frank; the other, saved by her adoptive father after her birth parents let her drown, is shy and reserved. Both find themselves attracted to the water. At the director’s choice, the characters in the film speak Mandarin without an accent. “I didn’t put this story in a specific location,” Ma told me in a recent interview, “because this village could be anywhere.”

Ma loves the river as an image and as a metaphor. For her, a river means the loss of a link with her hometown and, with it, the erosion of a people’s kinship with a land. She quoted the philosopher Heraclitus – “No man ever walks twice on the same river” – to explain how a river can represent a state of flux. You might think of a river as a fixed place, Ma explained, “but it is constantly changing.” She compares contemporary China to a river: “In some ways there are values ​​and cultures that are constant, but at the same time, the environment we live in is changing faster than we can catch up with. In a rapidly changing world, a river also functions as “a container of history,” Ma said. This phrase reminds me of the Chinese literary tradition of huaigu, in which people visit historical sites and contemplate the past. “You can sit there and think about things that have happened before. Think about missing girls. . . they may be nameless and forgotten, but they once existed.

In the mid-1990s, when Ma was six or seven years old, a parent let slip a little-mentioned fact: Before he was born, his parents had a son, who died young. Ma felt this was an unwelcome topic in her family and didn’t ask or think about it much. But she suspects the idea has taken root in her subconscious. She felt the need to live up to her late brother – a tragic loss often leaves an aura of perfection behind – and she felt she had to be a “satisfactory replacement”.

In the countryside where Ma’s father grew up, people spoke of the deceased infants with mysticism and fear, as if they were there to haunt the living. Ma’s film addresses this dynamic, which she sees as a coping mechanism: “The loss of children is too painful to accept. Some of Ma’s friends have suggested that the souls of abandoned and then dead infants must have become vengeful ghosts. Ma, however, has a different instinct: “I don’t think they knew what hate is. I think they were full of kindness.


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