SINGAPORE - If you are looking for animation that tells stories about life in modern society, there is no better time than now to delve into movies that use the art of drawing not to show life as it could be, but as it is.
The French drama I Lost My Body (M18, 81 minutes, 2018, Netflix, 3.5 stars) opens with a macabre scene: a severed hand gains consciousness in a medical laboratory. Skittering like a crab, the sentient appendage finds itself in the middle of Paris.
The mystery of where it came from and what it seeks is explained in flashback, with the title of the film a clue. Moroccan boy Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris in French and Dev Patel in the English audio) is shown to be a happy child, until an event brings him to the French capital, where he grows up to be a lonely young man too sensitive and bumbling to fit into the working-class social strata in which he has been forcibly placed.
Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature section this year (2020), this film treats its fantastical story in a realistic way. Other than a self-aware hand, Naoufel's life unfolds in an ordinary fashion, though it is a journey that has its share of tragedy.
This is a coming-of-age story told with a melancholic slowness, that never judges its main character for the poor choices he makes nor his circumstances for crushing his spirit. It puts Naoufel in full control of his decisions; viewers are invited to sympathise with him, but not feel pity.
You might be mistaken for thinking that The Breadwinner (NC16, 93 minutes, 2017, Netflix, 3.5 stars) is an Afghan production, but this film, set entirely in a period of that country when it was ruled by Taleban religious extremists, is the result of a collaboration among animation specialists in Ireland, Canada and Luxembourg.
At first glance, this belongs in the camp of awareness-raising, educational works, with its "developing-world" feminist perspective coming from its Western makers. Philanthropist and actress Angelina Jolie is a producer.
But get past that and one will find a lack of preachiness.
At the heart of the story, nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2018, is the tragic absurdity created by societies seeking to return to a golden age when men dominated and women were chattel: What happens to families in which all the men are gone?
Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name by Canadian writer Deborah Ellis, who based her book on interviews with refugees in Pakistan, the story is seen through the eyes of 11-year-old Parvana. After her street vendor father is arrested for the crime of impiety, she has to find food for her mother and siblings without getting caught by members of the militia, all eager to play judge and executioner on those they deem to have broken religious law.
While there is more than a moment of bleak humour - in scenes showing that when one is arguing with the armed religious right, the worst thing one can do is win - much of the story plays out as a tense survival story.
Parvana's choices are illustrated with stark, harrowing precision: She can follow the law, stay home and watch her family starve, or go out and risk everything.
From China comes the hilarious crime thriller Have A Nice Day (PG13, 77 minutes, Vimeo on demand, 4 stars). First screened in arthouse cinemas here in 2018, this work, winner for Best Animation at the 2017 Golden Horse Awards, is now available online.
In a nameless Southern city with all the pitiless drive of a Shanghai but with none of the glamour, Xiao Zhang works as a driver for a crime boss. He makes a pittance, not enough to help his girlfriend pay to fix her botched plastic surgery. A desperate plan is hatched, one that will cause him to flee for his life.
Writer-director Liu Jian never misses an opportunity to find deadpan humour, whether it is from dead-eyed hotel clerks at budget hotels or from the assortment of crooks, each with their own tics and levels of competency, sent to hunt Xiao Zhang.
Rent Have A Nice Day at US$4.99 (S$6.99) for a 48-hour period from Anticipate Pictures.