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Back Arts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: 'U Linh Tích Ký' Shows Made-in-Vietnam Animation Prowess, but Is Light on Narrative

Premiered less than 24 hours ago, a made-in-Vietnam animation project has quickly become the talk of the town in the local cybersphere thanks to its high production values and intriguing concept.

The seven-minute short, titled U Linh Tích Ký: Bột Thần Kì, is the brainchild of local studio Sun Wolf, which introduced U Linh Tích Ký as a proof-of-concept for their ongoing animated project Hành Trình Nhân Quả (The Karma Journey). According to the studio, the clip received positive feedback during its rounds at the recent Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) and Stuttgart International Animated Festival (ITFS).

Concept art of Linh Giới, with inspiration from Hội An's Chùa Cầu.

U Linh Tích Ký is set in a fictional land named Linh Giới, a realm for spirits and magical humanoid creatures that’s right beneath our world (Nhân Giới). The creative team took character design inspirations from Vietnamese folk tales and the country’s endemic species. Across the seven minutes of runtime, no spoken dialogue is included; instead, viewers are treated to expansive background art, fast-paced action, and some really solid character creations.

There’s Nghệ Trư An, a boar-like chef who wows the audience (and his eager diners) with an expertly crafted bowl of bún cá. Trư An runs a highly sought-after noodle shop in Quận Heo (Swine District) of Karma City with a mysterious assistant, blue spirit Tiểu Linh Lam. According to Sun Wolf, the culture and architecture of the city have strong influences from Hội An, a modern town with prominent roots in ancient history.

Two main characters from Bột Thần Kì.

The very moment that Trư An’s noodle bowls hit tables, mayhem befalls this ill-fated eatery when Leng Keng the young nghê chases a frog-like thief around and the pair reduces everything to debris. The short ends rather abruptly, leaving viewers hungry for more — I really want to try that inviting bowl of fish noodles, though I also hope that the “special powder” is just monosodium glutamate and not cocaine.

As just a proof-of-concept, the animated short is understandably light on script, so it remains to be seen if Sun Wolf can take this eye-popping visual feast to new heights with the support of sharp writing and lore architecture. Elsewhere in the live-action world, Vietnamese productions have proved again and again in recent years that local creatives are capable of crafting high-quality sets, costumes, and visual effects, though it’s usually the dearth of good scripts that limits their potential.

High-quality visuals are a strength of the short.

Nonetheless, there is still plenty to enjoy in U Linh Tích Ký, the breathtaking visuals being one of those attributes. Character movements are smooth and dynamic, the cinematography is strategically composed, and the background artwork is awash with details. If Sun Wolf intended this to be a flex regarding their technical prowess, I think they succeeded. The “made-in-Vietnam” label got me to click on the play button, but it was the dedication to visual polish that got me to sit through, and I suspect many Vietnamese viewers might share the same sentiment: we don’t want to watch something just because it’s Vietnamese, we want to watch it because it’s good.

The world of Linh Giới shows a blend of technology and tradition, the spiritual and the corporeal.

A few creative choices show a deliberate connection to Vietnam, without being too on-the-nose. Leng Keng is based on a nghê, a mythological creature that often appears in traditional architecture. Not to be confused with Chinese qilin, nghê is often considered a product of the commingling of Vietnamese, Indian, and Chinese cultures. The bowl of bún cá is the director’s tribute to the rustic pan-Vietnam tradition of making noodle dishes out of local fish — in this case, the visual obviously evokes canh chua vibes. Swine District, on the other hand, feels like a cookie-cutter East Asian town instead of anything recognizably Vietnamese; the rows of red lanterns bring to mind Zhang Yimou rather than Đặng Nhật Minh.

Architectural elements from Hội An serve as starting points for background art.

In an interview with Tuổi Trẻ, director and studio founder Leo Đinh spoke of a goal of the team to introduce Vietnamese animation to the world: “Compared to other Asian nations, the Vietnamese brand in the global animation landscape exists, but not really a strong one. The image of Vietnam in the eyes of the world is still morose and war-affected.”

The studio started two animation projects, Hành Trình Nhân Quả (The Karma Journey) and Tản Viên Phong Châu, with plans for content from now until 2035. All features in the projects will employ Vietnamese folk culture, such as the Sơn Tinh-Thủy Tinh mythology in Tản Viên Phong Châu.

Bún cá with tắc.

It is entirely too early to tell if The Karma Journey will amount to anything, though after watching U Linh Tích Ký, I feel eager to discover more. There’s just enough world-building and lore that one is left with questions and anticipation. What is the story behind the Karma Tree? How was this alternate dimension formed? What do other districts look like? Hopefully, we’ll get our answers soon.

[Images via Sun Wolf Studio]

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