'Eternal Spring': An Overdue Addendum to the Definition of Canadian Cinema
Every year, Telefilm Canada oversees the pan-Canadian Selection Committee to choose the film that will represent our country at the Academy Awards in the category of Best International Feature Film. To qualify, the film must essentially fulfill three main criteria: be produced by Canada, be made in a language that is at least 50 per cent non-English, and experience a Canadian theatrical release during the calendar year.
Throughout the history of the Oscars, Canada has submitted — including this year — 48 films for Academy consideration (nearly every year since 1971, in fact). Of the 48 films, only eight have actually been successful in scoring a nomination for Best International Feature Film: Le Déclin de l’empire américain (1986); Jésus de Montréal (1989); Les Invasions barbares (2003), which would also win; Water (2006); Incendies (2010); Monsieur Lazhar (2011); In Darkness (2011, in co-production with Poland and Germany); and Rebelle (2012).
More significantly, only four films in total have been in a language that wasn’t (wholly or partially) in French: A Bullet in the Head (imaginary); Atanarjuat (Inuktitut); Water (Hindi); and, now, Eternal Spring (Mandarin).
Produced by Lofty Sky Productions and directed by Jason Loftus, Eternal Spring combines live action footage with illustrations and animation from renowned comic book artist Daxiong to trace the events that led to Falun Gong’s hijacking of Chinese state television in Changchun in 2002, as well as the torture, imprisonment, displacement, and even death that the activists experienced at the hands of the Chinese government in the aftermath. The film had its world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March 2022 before playing at Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, where it won both the Hot Docs Audience Award (essentially, the most popular film at the festival) and the Rogers Audience Award (most popular Canadian film).
It’s a milestone achievement, surely, for Eternal Spring to be chosen as Canada’s entry into this year’s Oscar race. In addition to being the first Mandarin-language film to do so, it also makes history as the first animated film and first documentary ever selected. More than anything, of course, Eternal Spring effectively signals an expansion of how we define Canadian cinema, on a national and global scale.
When you look at the history of Canada’s representation and movements at the Oscars — and, for that matter, at the history of Canadian cinema in general — it makes sense that French-Canadian cinema has succeeded in carving out its own identity and establishing a presence in the industry. Being made in an “international” language has fundamentally afforded it an advantage in this regard that isn’t as readily available to English-speaking Canadian filmmakers, who have to compete against American cinema. Indeed, American-made movies dominate Canadian theatres and digital access, thus relegating our cinema to independent cinema. As a result, an understanding of a national filmic identity outside Quebec is ultimately harder for the average movie-lover to delineate. At any rate, you’d likely be hard-pressed to find someone across the country who has seen a Canadian film within the last year.
If English-speaking Canadian filmmakers are having a harder time of breaking through the noise, it’s an even more difficult endeavour for Canadians who speak and create in languages other than English or French: they have the added burden of proving that their film, though non-English or non-French, is Canadian. It’s akin to the controversy that followed Minari in 2021, wherein the Golden Globes classified Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical movie as “foreign-language,” because of its predominantly-Korean dialogue, despite being set in America, telling a story about the American dream, and being financed by an American studio. What ensued were conversations about national identity — what did it mean to be American? — and criticisms of seemingly outdated awards body regulations.
Eternal Spring is, all this considered, a fascinating choice by the pan-Canadian Selection Committee. On one hand, director Jason Loftus is Canadian and the film’s animation studio is based in Montreal, but, on the other, it’s neither an inherently Canadian story, nor is it set in Canada, nor does it feature Canadian culture, geography, or people. The documentary follows Daxiong as he interviews Falun Gong activists about their involvement in the TV signal hijacking. Having fled China, they scattered across the globe to places like South Korea and New York. And yet, Eternal Spring feels Canadian precisely because of its themes of migration and displacement. Canada, after all, is a country of immigrants and, in some cases, refugees. Many of us — or our parents, or our parents’ parents — left our countries of origin for reasons that range from a search for better opportunity to a need to escape disagreeable conditions, and everything in between.
That it’s the first Mandarin-language Canadian film to be submitted into the Oscars race — a platform that, though not without its institutional flaws, can actually yield opportunity upon recognition — is a major win for Asian and Asian diaspora films, filmmakers, and storytellers in Canada. For too long French-Canadian cinema, specifically in international eyes, has typified Canadian cinema as a whole. Which isn’t a bad thing. Quebec has produced some of the most beautiful filmic pieces in the history of the medium. However, in a country as vast and colourful as Canada is, filled with creatives from every corner of the world, it’s about time we re-examine just exactly what makes a Canadian film Canadian. It is, of course, too soon to say whether Eternal Spring will be the start of something new or, like Water, Atanarjuat, and A Bullet in the Head before it, a mere outlier, but it should be noted nonetheless because, if anything, Eternal Spring is noteworthy.