There’s been a spate of whitewashed and appropriated Asian roles in American-made movies recently, but there have been very few geeky movies which actually star Asian actors (to my knowledge, at least). Since this is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, though, I wanted to watch some geeky Asian films. To do so, I had to go through our archives before finally landing on Little Door Gods, a film I found out about in late 2015. Though it never got an American release, I did find it on the internet (just, you know, around).
Little Door Gods (小門神) is the first feature-length film from Light Chaser Animation, a Chinese animation studio which launched because of what founder Gary Wang saw as the lack of movies featuring Chinese mythology. (Probably a good call; it doesn’t look like Hollywood is going to get to Asian inclusivity anytime soon.) Wang has said that he wants to create “the Pixar of China,” and he’s even hired some animators who used to work for Pixar and DreamWorks in pursuit of his goal. His first movie is… definitely good, but not Pixar-worthy yet.
Spoilers for Little Door Gods below!
Little Door Gods has two parallel-ish plots. The first concerns a young girl named Yu-Er (雨兒), who moves from an unidentified big city to an unidentified town in rural China with her mother Ying (英) to take care of her grandmother’s old wonton restaurant. Yu-Er is desperately unhappy; she hates the restaurant, she hates the town, all the other girls make fun of her, and so on and so on. But her mother won’t leave, and Yu-Er has to reluctantly help out around the restaurant. The only thing she’s curious about is the two posters that her grandmother has on the doors of the restaurant. When she asks her mother what these are, Ying tells her that these are door gods (門神), who are meant to protect the home and the family.
Our other plot is, as you might have guessed, about these door gods. In the spirit world, we meet Shen-Tu (神荼) and Yu-Lei (郁垒), the two brothers who are the door gods who guard Yu-Er’s family’s restaurant. They and the rest of the gods are frustrated and worried over their sudden lack of work, as humans have gradually started to stop believing in the old gods (in the case of door gods) or have come up with new technologies such as greenhouses (in the case of the flower goddess) to render gods’ services unnecessary. Yu-Lei eventually discovers the legend of the Nian (年), an ancient creature which attacked humans and gods alike until the gods used three seals to seal it away, and he becomes determined to unseal it once more so that humans will again know how powerful the gods are and worship them. Shen-Tu tries to stop him, but Yu-Lei escapes into the human world and Shen-Tu is too afraid to go after him.
In the human world, Yu-Lei meets and protects Yu-Er from a pack of stray dogs. The gods have forever been told that talking to humans and interacting with them will mean Bad Things, but since nothing happens to Yu-Lei, he assumes that this, like the other gods’ warnings about the Nian, is just so much baloney, and continues on his way. As he breaks the first two seals, the rivers in Yu-Er’s town start drying up and swarms of flies are everywhere. Shen-Tu finally comes to the human world and he and Yu-Er find Yu-Lei as he’s in the process of shattering the third seal. Shen-Tu manages to convince him that releasing the Nian will be bad for humans like Yu-Er, but it’s too late: the Nian is out and the door gods and Yu-Er have to fight back to save the world.
As first movies go, Little Door Gods isn’t bad. The animation is delightfully cute and colorful, the art direction is fun, and it’s nice to see a creative take on the Chinese folklore stories of the Nian and the door gods. The producers of course didn’t set out to be 100% accurate, as it’s not a documentary, but the movie’s Chinese heritage is evident in its conception of gods and the Nian, of course, is defeated by firecrackers. (In the old stories, the Nian appears at the end of the year and is afraid of loud noises, fire, and the color red, which is why Chinese New Year is celebrated with a ton of firecrackers.)
However, like many other first novels, Little Door Gods suffered from a lack of clear characterization and plot. Yu-Lei wants to free the Nian to get humans to worship him again, so why does he acquiesce to his brother’s demands so quickly? If Shen-Tu could have stopped his brother so easily, why didn’t he do so earlier? And Yu-Er may be one of our protagonists, but as the door gods fulfill their duty of protecting her and the other humans, she doesn’t have much to do until the very end, where she gets to throw some firecrackers at the Nian. We never learn more about her family, either: we can assume that she and her mother moved into their grandmother’s restaurant due to filial piety, but we don’t know anything about their prior city life or even where Yu-Er’s father is.
The movie had ample opportunities to say something new and impactful, and it came closest to it when it hinted at a traditionalism vs modernism plotline at the start of the movie. Yu-Er, who presumably had a lot of cool modern things in her city life, bemoans how rural and boring her grandmother’s village and restaurant are, and Ying lectures her on the family traditions and tells her that this restaurant is their legacy. The gods in the spirit world, meanwhile, are all trying to find new jobs as their old ones dry up, but Yu-Lei insists on remaining a door god and kicks off his whole world-destroying plot essentially to keep his job. I assumed that Yu-Er and Yu-Lei would both learn how to blend the old with the new while moving forward, but this didn’t exactly happen: Yu-Er starts to like the restaurant, but during the Nian’s attack the restaurant is partially destroyed and the old family recipe is entirely lost, and so when Yu-Er really gets into the restaurant by the end of the movie, it’s with a rebuilt restaurant and new food that she and her mother have created together, not with anything related to her family history. Yu-Lei, even more weirdly, accomplishes his ultimate goal as a door god by protecting all of humanity, and then… goes to open a restaurant in the spirit world. It’s a happy ending for everyone, but not one that particularly makes thematic sense.
Little Door Gods is certainly fun to watch and it’s excellently animated, but due to its thin character motivations and unclear message, it probably won’t become a classic. However, it’s a good first effort from Light Chaser Animation, and hopefully we’ll get more nuanced stories from them in the future!