Mixed-media documentary “Eternal Spring (长春)” offers a unique perspective on what the persecution of people of faith really looks like.

In March 2002, in order to combat the persistent and often violent persecution practitioners of Falun Gong endured in China, several members decided to break into the evening news to project one of their DVDs. The idea being that if they could get the message out about their organization and its pacifist/moral-led belief system, perhaps they could turn the tide of perception in the country and prevent more violence and death. Split into three teams, each one hijacked the television signal and, while successful in their immediate mission, those who took part faced incredible punishment. One Falun Gong practitioner who left China in the wake of the hijacking is renowned comic book artist Daxiong (Justice League; Star Wars), who, in partnership with director Jason Loftus, seeks out several living members of the hijackers to put their story on paper for it to be animated into a film titled Eternal Spring (长春). The final mixed-media project is thrilling, mesmerizing, and heartbreaking as Daxiong brings the audience through an incredible journey of human resilience in the face of insurmountable circumstances.

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Director Jason Loftus with artist and film participant Daxiong. (© 2022 Lofty Sky Pictures)

Though Loftus is the director, the face and driver of Eternal Spring is Daxiong. It’s his voice we hear as the camera points down upon someone we later learn is Daxiong sitting at a drawing table with various pieces strewn about. The camera then pans down into the art, transitioning from a workspace into an aerial exploration of Changchun, China, the audience flying along with a drone-like camera in an extensive tracking shot that explores the day that many of the hijackers were captured by police in a far-reaching raid. This method of opening the documentary not only sets the stakes and establishes the circumstances the audience will be learning about with deft ease, it also establishes how the film will function moving forward: balancing between present day and the past via transitions between the real world and animation. As though anticipating some may struggle to follow who’s speaking or what story is being told, Loftus also uses name cards with smaller profile-like icons that slide onto screen to help the audience better identify and connect with each of the individuals we meet. This is extraordinarily helpful throughout the documentary, especially when more and more people come together.

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Scene from a Chinese prison. (© 2022 Lofty Sky Pictures)

Another brilliant decision is to have Daxiong as the audience’s surrogate. He himself grew up in China and he practiced Falun Gong in the time of the hijacking (and still does today), providing a means of granting the documentary credibility and authenticity in perspective. However, he did not take part at all in the events that lead to him fleeing the country out of fear of growing persecution. Via Daxiong, the audience gets to sit down with several hijackers, getting their viewpoint on what it was like before, during, and after the events. Though there are a few talking head-style interview moments in Eternal Spring, much of the documentary is far more casual with Daxiong sitting with either an individual or a group, sketching as he listens to the stories. During these moments, Loftus switches between what Daxiong is doing, focusing on the speaker, and fully animated sequences that depict the story being told, animation which shares more in common with a moving comic book like Iron Man: Extremis (2010) than Turning Red (2022). Though what’s presented is clearly an artist’s rendering of events, through the layered method of storytelling, it’s hard not to feel as if we’re looking straight into the past, with each action and reaction a glimpse of the truth.

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Film participant and illustrator Daxiong. (© 2022 Lofty Sky Pictures)

Any good documentary not only informs the audience about its subject, but it also inspires them to think about their relationship to the subject matter. Eternal Spring is a story of peaceful revolution against a tyrannical government, of individuals banding together in an effort to obtain religious freedom. It’s hard not to think about their actions — hijacking the CCTV system that broadcast government-approved materials — with the way in which the U.S. is slowly shifting toward a similar view in the hands of the Conservative Party. Using the name of their faith, they try to ban, abolish, and otherwise remove access to healthcare, information, and art. If someone of a differing faith were to try the same, they would scream “religious freedom!” in some blind hypocrisy, only to then go back about reducing all they can in pursuit of making their faith the only one. It certainly helps in the case of Eternal Spring that the ideology of Falun Gong is entirely peaceful, a practice focused on physical and mental health through exercise and encouraging acts toward others. This makes it easy to lambast the Chinese government for allowing sadistic police officers free reign to dole out punishment whether someone is merely a suspect or is in custody. To watch Eternal Spring and not identify their struggle, their fight for freedom, as on-going in various forms everywhere is to remain asleep to a system that rewards complacency and seeks to thwart disruption, even the pacifist kind.

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A violent arrest outside Changchun, China. (© 2022 Lofty Sky Pictures)

To this end, Loftus and Daixong’s Eternal Spring is a film which demands our consideration, offering only insight as attention’s reward, insight into how a small band of peaceful individuals, using only their wits and determination against an unjust system, found ways to rebel without hurting anyone. They didn’t resort to violence, they didn’t storm the government, they just sought to share information, even if it meant sacrificing their lives to do so. This is a bold story told in a compassionate way, maintaining its human connection even when animated in 3D.

In select theaters since May 3rd, 2022 during Hot Docs 2022.

For more information, head to the official Eternal Spring website.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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