Welcome to Animation Globe where HeadStuff’s animation expert Joseph Learoyd analyses films of the form from around the world. This entry is on 1998 Taiwanese animation Grandma and Her Ghosts.
From director Wang Shaudi comes this little-known animated gem from 1998. Grandma and Her Ghosts follows a young boy, Dou Dou (Chieh-Hui Hsu), who, after his mother is forced to travel overseas, is taken in by his unusual grandmother from a small fishing village. As it turns out, her house holds plenty of secrets, soon revealing the old woman’s ability to communicate with spirits. From there, we delve into a world of rural Taiwanese customs, a fascinating journey that culminates in a rescue attempt to save Grandma from a demon cat!
If all this sounds a bit wild, that’s okay. Grandma and Her Ghosts, like many eastern animation productions, relies heavily on a culture that for many of us might prove difficult to fully relate to. That said, the film does a brilliant job of holding our hand through the narrative’s many turns, all the while summoning a unique visual hand-drawn style that stands out from the likes of Disney and Studio Ghibli.
Themes of spiritualism and familial bonds play off each other to great effect, leading to expressive characterisation and cartoonish comedy that never feels stale. Elsewhere, deeper themes such as countryside/city contrasts and the erosion of cultural traditions manage to crop up, showing us how old customs are often superseded by modern industrialisation.
Upon its release, Grandma and Her Ghosts was nominated for a Golden Horse Award (a prestigious film festival and awards ceremony held annually in Taiwan). And it’s a shame it didn’t win, because this is a film that deserves a lot more recognition than it initially received. It offers a lot to enjoy. Through its 79min runtime, we see the spiritual world blur into reality, which, along with gorgeous animated sequences and Shih Jei-Young’s score, help tie together such a unique vision.
At times, the protagonist can come across as annoying, spoilt and whiny—characteristics that may turn many people off. And these traits don’t go unnoticed in the story itself, as the older character regularly expresses their frustration with Dou Dou. This interaction between the two serves to drive our plot forward, and it makes for some solid comedic and heartwarming moments that keep us engaged.
Grandma and Her Ghosts marked the start of Shaudi’s career in animated features, but it was by no means easy, encountering her fair share of trials and tribulations during production. With zero animation experience, Shaudi approached a Korean company, who delivered in-between animation frames for the key-frames that her team sent across. This collaboration resulted in a ground breaking aesthetic, leading to what is probably the most famous animation to come out of Taiwan.
The content of the film, whilst light-hearted, dealt with aspects of anomalies and spirits, ideas considered harmful for its young target audience. Thus, the film never got the commercial push it needed, and indigenous focused Taiwanese content was halted as a result. It isn’t hard to see the representation issues with this film’s release, but at the its heart, it looks at a topic, handles it with care and beauty, and allows us to enter a world of traditional ideologies.
Grandma and Her Ghosts may not be for everyone, and even runs the risk of being put down by those who don’t fully understand it. But the thing is: it doesn’t try to appeal to the crowd; it aims to tell a story that was struggling to be heard at the time. Shaudi amplifies it, playing it through a stunning cartoon world that allows us to see strong characters with real emotions. And it’s for that reason that Grandma and Her Ghosts will always be iconic.