Stop me if you've heard this one before: it's the classic story of men's leather dress shoes imprisoning ladies high-heel shoes, forcing them to provide male heirs, only for one renegade shoe to transform herself into a male shoe and avenge her daughter's death. We've seen this all before so many times.
If you're still reading this, it most likely means that you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, because no, this is so far removed from typical. I'll dismount from my high horse and explain a little further.
Part 'Animal Farm', part '1984', part 'The Handmaid's Tale', 'S He' is Zhou Shengwei's debut feature. But rather than displaying his story in familiar territory, Shengwei opts for the all-too-rare art form of stop-motion animation. Five years and 58,000 photos later, the Chinese director has his movie.
Straight away, you know this isn't going to be your average film. Audiences enter a prisoned world not made with steel chains and metals but with colourful winter coats and gloves. We learn quickly what the rules of this strange world are; the role of the female shoe is strictly limited to reproduction, and the male shoes rule over them with an iron fist. The protagonist shoe leaps at an opportunity to avenge her daughter's death, who, as with all female offspring, was cruelly stripped of her rights and transformed into an emotionless male "worker-shoe". The "mother-shoe" disguises herself as one of the males and sets off on a journey of discovery and survival. Shengwei speaks about how he made this as a gift to his mother, supporting the ever-present themes of sacrifice and motherhood.
This truly is defamiliarisation in every sense of the word. This theory suggests that when audiences are presented with common things in an unfamiliar setting, it will enhance - or at least alter - their perception of said familiar. If you can look past the shoes and the setting, you will see an artist grappling with the idea of individualism. 'S He' represents all those who are disenfranchised in the world, all those who feel excluded from society and deprived of privilege. It speaks to everyone from the working class to the upper echelons of society that we need to strip back labels and categories in order to rightfully respect one another and progress forward. The purpose of the shoes is for it not to be seen as a shoe at all.
However, I'd be lying if I said I could look past the shoes. I understand what Shengwei is attempting, but I just found it all too distracting. It tries its hardest, but I just don't feel that 'S He' does enough to make audiences forget about the shoes. And the shoes are not even the strangest part. There are brains that fart out cigarettes, guns that shoot out leather buttons, and steel wool that transforms into golden crowns. It's imaginative, it's vivid, it's creative, and it's unbelievably bonkers. Some of it even seemed overtly sexual, but that might say more about me than it does about the director.
There are brains that fart out cigarettes, guns that shoot out leather buttons, and steel wool that transforms into golden crowns. It's imaginative, it's vivid, it's creative, and it's unbelievably bonkers.
'S He' tackles central questions of female empowerment, addiction, capitalism, authority, and other such prevalent topics, and it does it all in a completely unique fashion. Half of this film has the capacity to be studied as a thesis, and the other half made my brain hurt. I think on a personal level I wasn't ready for everything this film throws at you, but there is absolutely an audience for it. Stop-motion animation is a dying art form and I'd love to see more of it. There is something so endearing and personal about it, and it can often capture an intricate depth and stillness hard to find elsewhere.
So, is this the 'Animal Farm' adaption you've been waiting for all your life? Probably not. 'S He' is all kinds of wacky, and whilst some of it elicits welcomed breathtaking moments, some of it is just too much. But this is exactly the kind of film that could leave a bigger impact than you can imagine, so I encourage anyone who is even slightly curious to please check this one out. If you can look past the shoes, there are important lessons and values being taught by a visionary director, willing to take risks - and that should always be applauded.