Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on Science Fiction in Hong Kong penned by some of the territory’s most outstanding school-age literary talents.
Kanon Chu reviews a science fiction animated film made in Hong Kong that is poised to become a classic.
“Dragon’s Delusion: A Wild Soul Chase”
Bustling crowds in a dilapidated district walled by colossal buildings is perhaps one of the most distinctive sights in Hong Kong, which is also how the city earns its reputation as a ‘cyberpunk’ reality. Having influenced the look of cyberpunk classics such as AKIRA (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), the ‘high tech, low life’ element of Hong Kong has defined the cyberpunk genre and goes on to become a hallmark in other seminal works in the genre. Hence, after learning that there would be a local science fiction animation project based in Hong Kong, you could not imagine the thrill coursing through my veins as I absorbed the Preface chapter of Dragon’s Delusion. Some have argued that few films have been able to be on par with genre pioneers such as Blade Runner (1982). Thus, it is all the more impressive that Dragon’s Delusion is able to explore the genre with a new twist.
Since its trailer premiered in 2017, the highly anticipated local animated sci-fi project has been in development with the financial support of fans using the fund-raising platform Kickstarter. Having gone on to release two preview animations, the Departure and Assassination chapters in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the animation team has received overwhelming critical acclaim and even won the Gold Mention Award in Digicon6 Asia 2017. Following up its promising head start, the team released the third and latest installment of the project, the Preface chapter in 2020, and which, to no one’s surprise, did not disappoint. This time, the short was awarded the prestigious Grand Prize in DigiCon6 Asia 2020. With all its critical accolades, it goes without saying that Dragon’s Delusion is not your typical sci-fi blockbuster divested of substance.
In this alternate history of the Warring States period, Emperor Qin Shi Huang unifies China under his absolute monarchy. With his enemies perished, Emperor Qin unlocks the key to longevity through cyber enhancements and develops the Immortality Project, in which people achieve immortality by transforming into Inmortalis. Joe, a robot serving a human, Katherine, and an Inmortalis, Dice, inherits the consciousness and memory of the poet Qu Yuan after the trio steals the latest prototype of the Immortality Project 3.0. Finally, while reliving the memory of Qu Yuan, Joe embarks on a journey that would take him across the plane of existence as he tries to restore his soul.
At its core, Dragon’s Delusion is a dissection of identity, a common yet fundamental subject that has haunted us since the dawn of human cognition. While SF fans are no stranger to the existential theme almost ubiquitous in cyberpunk movies, the most obvious diversion of Dragon’s Delusion from the genre’s conventions is its setting. Instead of situating the story in some highly advanced megacity in the far-off future like most would do, Kong Kee, the creator and director of the project, takes a new spin on the trope and sets the story against the flow of time. Similar to the deliberate anachronism of steampunk, Kong Kee challenges us with a hypothesis: if ancient China were to possess the technology of the future, how would history be altered? Indeed, this fascinating question is embodied in the intricate world-building which gives off a sense of retrofuturism. Take the Immortality Project as an example. Even though the prototype confers humans with the ability to transcend death, it ironically takes the shape of a cassette tape – a ‘relic’ that has become obsolete since the 1990s. By juxtaposing other-worldly advanced concepts with old-fashioned gadgets, Kong Kee creates a familiar yet nostalgic past that never took place. With this seemingly contradictory setting, the film subverts the dichotomy of past and future by seamlessly merging both to produce its own aesthetics. In an interview, Kong Kee let out that the designs had been inspired by silk paintings depicting the imagined afterlife during the Pre-Qin Period, with surreal visuals such as vehicles that resembled spaceships. Perhaps this retrofuturistic vibe stemmed from our ancestors after all.
Although Kong Kee took the liberty to remodel history, references to actual historical events still permeates throughout the film. Markedly, a ship named Penglai (蓬萊號) can be seen under construction for a split second. For those who are familiar with the history of Emperor Qi’s actual quest for immorality, Penglai is one of the three legendary mountains rumored to contain the elixir of life in Chinese mythology. Another reference to actual history is the character Xu Fu, who, in reality, was a Chinese alchemist tasked by Emperor Qi twice to seek the three legendary mountains (but to no avail). Some speculated that Xu had escaped to Japan in his last voyage lest the wrath of Emperor Qi reached him. Of all these homages to history, none has been as obvious and pivotal than Qu Yuan, whose consciousness is passed down to Joe the robot.
Qu Yuan, a poet and politician serving Chu Huaiwang in the State of Chu during the Warring States period, was a historical figure highly venerated in the Chinese culture for his patriotism and integrity displayed in numerous folklores, such as the origins of the Dragon Boat Festival. However, underneath the veneer of myths and legends, the tragedy of Qu Yuan is what drives the plot of Dragon’s Delusion. Loyal to his lord King Hwai, Qu Yuan devoted his life to serving the State of Chu. However, despite all his devotion, he was nonetheless exiled as he was slandered by corrupt ministers in the royal court. Devastated and grieving for the fall of his motherland, he eventually committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. During his exile, he transformed his sorrow and despair into a series of poems, including “The Lament”, also known as Li Sao (離騷), which was directly referenced in the Chinese title of Dragon’s Delusion (離騷幻覺). Adhering to the theme of soul and identity, Kong Kee even featured some of Qu’s poems at the opening of the Preface chapter. For instances, the proses ‘O soul come back! Why have you gone so far?’ (魂兮歸來！何遠爲些。) and ‘O soul come back！Back to your home!’ (魂兮歸來！返故居些。) are extracts from Qu’s “Summons of the Soul” (招魂), which tells the story of the summoning of a wandering soul, echoing the pilgrimage of Joe in the animation.
Near the end of the Preface chapter, Qu Yuan, the original bearer of Joe’s soul, mentions that he has dreamt of being a robot, to which Chu replies mockingly that maybe he is actually a robot who dreamt of being Qu Yuan. This memorable scene is of course a modern rendition of the tale of the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi contemplating if he was a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a man. The theme of identity fragmentation is amplified by the alternating narratives of Qu Yuan and Joe, as both plots advance in parallel, mingling the present and the past. Dwelling on the intertwined nature of dream and reality, Qu Yuan replies pensively that if he were a dream, wouldn’t that make all his sufferings just a delusion? The idea that suffering is merely a delusion certainly has its roots in Buddhism and even Daoism, which also emphasizes that suffering is meaningless in itself. The school of Buddhism believes that ignorance and human cravings, including the desire for immortality, are the causes of our suffering. The film’s title, Dragon’s Delusion, may therefore be referring to Emperor Qi’s hugely ambitious goal of attaining immortality, since dragons are often associated with Chinese emperors.
Another example of a possible Buddhist influence is the theme of reincarnation and destiny in the film. Joe is created by King Hwai as a replicate of Qu Yuan and inherits the consciousness of Qu through the tape. Thus, Qu is reincarnated as Joe. However, as Katherine has said to Joe before he gets the tape, she believes that Joe, even as a robot, has a soul.
In an interview, Kong Kee once explained that the tape represents destiny. The trajectory of outcomes is always predetermined by fate, as if everything we will ever say in a lifetime is already prerecorded. Hence, it raises the question of whether Joe, having been a replicate of Qu Yuan, can alter his own destiny and escape the tragic demise of taking his own life at the end. In other words, is Joe the same person as Qu despite being a robot? In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that true freedom can only come from autonomy. In this sense, Joe as an individual entity may be stripped of freedom as he is only a slave to a predestination.
To dissect Joe as a character, one could not dismiss the innate ontological paradoxes of a robot. Could Joe be considered an individual entity only after he obtains the tape, or is he still Joe if he does not have the tape? As Joe is built to resurrect Qu Yuan, inheriting the consciousness of the poet would already be fulfilling his purpose, thus completing his ‘configuration’ as the robot Joe. Yet, it could also be argued that Joe’s own soul would be displaced after assuming the memory of Qu Yuan. Of course, existentialists would chant: ‘Existence precedes essence.’ Frankly, I believe that Joe does not possess any inherent purpose that he is obligated to fulfill.
Apart from Joe, Katherine is another interesting character as she symbolizes the redemption for Joe when she salvages Joe from the river. By the same token, King Hwai can be viewed as a savior for Qu Yuan as he has given Qu Yuan a purpose in life – serving him. The link between Katherine and King Hwai is exemplified by the fact that both are played by the same voice actor. Furthermore, having established the parallels between King Hwai and Katherine, one could infer that the care displayed by Katherine towards Joe may be hinting at the intimacy shared by King Hwai and Qu Yuan in the story, which may be alluding to the possible homosexual relationship between the real historical figures as suggested by modern studies.
While Dragon’s Delusion’s plot and character writing are impressive, what it does best is the creation of its own visual style. With its memorable visceral and psychedelic aesthetics, viewers would no doubt be mesmerized by its daring use of colour. Throughout the chapter, it is quite noticeable that the colour white is scarcely used. Kong Kee once revealed that his team deliberately avoided using the colour white even when drawing the sky, displacing it with yellow and red, or even blue and violet in the ending. As a result, the lack of natural daylight enhances the supernatural setting of the story. Furthermore, the colour red is used for oceans and rivers, resonating with the tragic fate of Qu Yuan. When Katherine is seen salvaging Joe from the river, countless other corpse-like figures are also swarmed by the red river, with faces resembling Joe’s. Qu Yuan may have already been reincarnated as robots before but each reincarnation met his fated doom: drowning himself in the same river and thus staining the river red with blood. This seemingly incessant cycle of suicides reinforces the theme of Joe defying destiny against all odds.
Dragon’s Delusion has been described as a love letter to Hong Kong by its creators. Trademarks of Hong Kong’s fine scenery – gigantic neon signs, city-dwellers, oddly interspersed mountains – captivates the audience and sets the film apart. Although the project is recognized among film lovers, local animations in general are still criminally under the radar in Hong Kong. The hurdles the production team has had to overcome are unimaginable. Nonetheless, Dragon’s Delusion still stands on its own and proves to the industry that local animations can thrive in Hong Kong. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in local cultures. People are starting to preserve and cherish their own culture, whether it is by consuming locally made goods or visiting independently-owned shops instead of chain stores. But what this means to the local animation industry is that this could finally be its time to flourish. In other words, without the support it needs and deserves, the prospect of the industry remains bleak, especially for surreal, high-concept projects like Dragon’s Delusion. Thus, in order that the feature-length version of Dragon’s Delusion can come to fruition, the public ought to see Dragon’s Delusion for themselves.
Kanon Chu is an avid movie-goer with an interest in film appreciation, philosophy, and literary theory. Currently a S.6 student in Hong Kong, he is an editor for his school’s publication – Torch.