Canada’s Oscar contender is a documentary which looks back at the actions of Falun Gong members in China in 2002

ETERNAL SPRING - (copyright Lofty Sky Pictures)

Source: Lofty Sky Pictures

‘Eternal Spring’

Dir/scr: Jason Loftus. Canada. 2022. 85 mins.

It has been two decates since a group of Falun Gong practitioners in China hit back at the government’s crackdown on their organisation by hijacking the airwaves, broadcasting a video promoting their spiritual movement on state television. The documentary Eternal Spring explores the aftermath of that brazen stunt, with Canadian writer-director Jason Loftus following comic-book artist (and Falun Gong acolyte) Daxiong as he speaks to those who were involved and tries to make sense of his own mixed feelings about their nervy act of defiance. Featuring vivid animation inspired by Daxiong’s drawings, the film is somber and hushed, able to stir emotions without resorting to manipulative tricks.

These activists were willing to die for their beliefs, and tragically some of them got their wish

Eternal Spring is Canada’s entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, and the picture’s heist narrative could attract viewers. (Already, the film has won audience awards at Hot Docs and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.) The tough subject matter, which looks at the torture and deaths of those who orchestrated the hijacking, is handled sensitively. Falun Gong, set-up in the mid-90s in China as a blend of meditation and qi gong, is a controversial organisation, now headquartered in upstate New York, where it has been associated with the far-right movement; at home, it was brutally repressed in the late-90s by a government worried about its popularity. Daxiong now lives in Toronto after fleeing Changchun in the early 2000s.

With him, the film looks back to March 5, 2002, when a group of activists, tired of the negative propaganda spread about their movement on state television, decided to tap into the airwaves to share a more positive message about Falun Gong.

Their daring plan succeeded, but soon the authorities retaliated — which is when Daxiong left his homeland. Loftus (Ask No Questions), who previously collaborated with the artist on a video game, lets Daxiong tell his own story, and, specifically, how he has always felt conflicted about the 2002 hijacking, in which he had no part. Was it a needless provocation that brought more harm than good? In Eternal Spring, Daxiong travels to Seoul and New York, interviewing some of the planners to hear their memories and ask their opinion of the scheme’s lasting impact.

Throughout these interviews, Daxiong takes pen to paper, rendering their anecdotes as beautiful drawings. Animation director David St-Amant helps bring these tales to life, whether it’s Daxiong’s childhood reminiscences or the detailed planning that went into the hijackers’ nerve-wracking operation. The latter scenes have the gritty texture of a graphic novel, with the frame sometimes divided into boxes, as if you’re flipping through the pages of a comic book. But there’s never anything flashy about the animation, which aims for straightforward realism, cognisant that this story has a grim ending once the police start rounding up the activists.

Daxiong’s evolving viewpoint about this hijacking may be presented as Eternal Spring’s emotional through-line, but the film’s real narrative engine derives from the recounting of this risky scheme. Its audacity is underplayed, with the witnesses surprisingly blase about the chances they were taking — which only makes the buildup and execution all the more riveting. In the tradition of classic heist pictures, there are the inevitable mistakes, close calls and weird twists of fate that add extra drama. And the stakes are high from the start: before the activists can even begin their operation, their charismatic leader, identified only as Liang, is detained, casting doubt on whether they should proceed.  

Animated documentaries such as Waltz With Bashir risk obscuring the horrors they wish to spotlight underneath the gorgeousness of their film’s look. Thankfully, Eternal Spring sidesteps this issue, striking a balance between inviting visuals and dark thematic undertones. Likewise, Thomas William Hill’s score is pulse-pounding in the midst of the hijacking, letting us feel the danger and excitement, but then shifts to a mournful tone as the repercussions play out. 

There are notes of triumph in Eternal Spring, but Loftus and Daxiong understand the gravity of this story. These activists were willing to die for their beliefs, and tragically some of them got their wish. 

Production company: Lofty Sky Pictures

International sales: Sideways Film, and 

Producers: Jason Loftus, Yvan Pinard, Kevin Koo

Cinematography: John Tran

Editing: David Schmidt

Music: Thomas William Hill