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    Greater China
     Jan 20, 2007
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An animator's novel experience

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China by Guy Delisle

Reviewed by Fraser Newham

Guy Delisle was far from home in a three-star Chinese hotel, shivering in the arctic blast of an air-con on the blink. There was every indication that the project was heading for disaster - and no guarantees that his local colleagues even understood there was a

problem. He was ready to snap.

The obvious next move? To attack the hotel room; in Delisle's case with a sharp roundhouse kick to the wall-mounted air-conditioner control, utterly unresponsive up to this point, presumed broken. It was only when his head cleared that Delisle, inspecting the damage, discovered the futility even of that. "The temperature control on the AC doesn't control a thing," he writes. "It's just a plastic dial held in place by a screw."

There may just be Asia Times Online readers who find all this a little bit familiar, for such is the stuff of working life on the frontiers of globalization. At the time Delisle was working in animation, a French-Canadian plying his trade among the studios of Europe - studios that by the late 1990s had largely gone out of business as work migrated to the cheaper workshops of Eastern Europe and the Far East. Delisle had stuck with his French employers, but consequently his work saw him spending increasing amounts of time in East Asia on short-term managerial contracts.

Two such jaunts he has turned into a pair of graphic novels, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, originally published in French and now newly reissued in English-language international editions.

Chronologically, his Shenzhen trip came first; the book records a lonely two months he spent there over Christmas 1997, working on the animated version of popular French comic strip Papyrus. Meanwhile, his stint in the hardcore-sounding destination of Pyongyang came five years later; there he represented French channel TF1, one of a hardy gang of French-employed animators managing some of the cheapest animation talent in the world during a brief window of opportunity, now closed (by sanctions).

Outsourcing, both books make clear, is no picnic - or this, at least, is the view from the ground. In North Korea, life is relentlessly colored by the need to make political accommodations with the regime. On arrival he is required to pay homage to a statue of Kim Il-sung. Most of his movements are shadowed by an official minder, and at work an elderly political commissar pads around the studio drinking tea from a tin cup. At one point at work he pops a jazz compact disc into his personal computer, and his minder flies into the room insisting that he shut the door, lest the devilish beats pump forbidden thoughts of freedom through his local colleagues' veins.

In Shenzhen, by contrast, his accommodation is with the buccaneering, unsteady capitalism of China in the first months after Deng Xiaoping. He is very conscious that he is living in a cultural desert, where only construction, development and making money feature on the local agenda. The whole organization in Shenzhen is flying by the seat of its pants, and Delisle must contend with mountains of work, impossible deadlines and penny-pinching wherever possible. Soon after his arrival, for instance, he discovers that the local partner has ditched layout altogether - instead the animators only have photocopied storyboards to guide them, all to save a buck.

In both settings he has familiar-sounding difficulties communicating his requirements to his staff. Animators at the Pyongyang studio just can't nail that typically French (and seemingly quite essential) gesture, the "ooh la la"; and in Shenzhen he resigns himself to micromanaging his staff, writing out the smallest of instructions to avoid confusion and, when all else fails, even as his desk groans under the accumulated workload, in time-honored fashion rolling up his sleeves and damn-well-doing-it-himself.

To revisit these joyful times in the form of a graphic novel has novelty value - Tintin, Delisle implies at one point, never had to put up with this - and certainly the author makes the most of the format here. On one level the immediacy of cartoon strips allows Delisle as a short-term visitor to document what he finds with reasonable accuracy; he can draw what he sees, to a large extent

Continued 1 2 

Chinese economy enjoys comic relief (Apr 10, '06)

Axis of ... cute? (Nov 13, '02)


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