Siqi Song first grabbed our attention last year when she released her superb short film The Coin, having previously graduated from CalArts. A few days ago, however, the LA-based animation director received an Oscar nomination in the “Best Animated Short Film” category for her stop-motion piece SISTER, a moving tale that grapples with everything from sibling rivalries and family, to the power of imagination and modern politics in China. No mean feat in eight minutes.
The idea for the film came from a question that Siqi found she was constantly asked while growing up in China during the 1990s: “What is it like growing up with a sibling?” It might seem like an odd question, but this was during the time of China’s one-child policy, which for four decades decreed that families could only have one child per household in an attempt to curb rampant population growth. “I was born as a second child at the height of China’s one-child policy,” says Siqi. “At that time, not a lot of ‘little sisters’ were lucky enough to be born and most of my friends don’t have siblings. When they found out that I had one, they would always ask me what it was like growing up with a sibling, and share their stories of their ‘almost’ sisters or brothers with me.”
(Spoiler alert.) The narrator in SISTER is a man recalling the loss of his younger sister, when he was just four years old, and is an imaginary rendering of how his life would have been had his sister been born. However, we only discover relatively late in the film that his sister never really existed and that his whole relationship with her is a figment of his imagination.
There are three scenes in the film, which Siqi describes as “fantasy moments”, that are particularly poignant. In these scenes, we see the creations of the young boy’s vivid imagination come to life, while metaphors become – albeit briefly – reality. In the first scene, the boy imagines his little sister inflating like a balloon until she bursts out of her cot and fills an entire room of their house; in another, she grows a Pinocchio nose after telling a lie; and in the third, the pair plant a tooth in soil and it grows into a tooth tree. Each of these “fantasy moments” breathes life into the boy’s internal world.
Yet Siqi is doing something else here as well. The scenes “metaphorically reveal the reality”, she explains. “Like pulling the umbilical cord represents the abortion, the long nose represents how this story is a lie, and the never-sprouted tooth represents the baby who was never born (and grown).” The tooth tree has a further, deeper meaning. “I played a little word game here,” she says. “The Chinese character for ‘tooth’ (牙) is pronounced the same as ‘sprout’ (芽), so teeth growing on trees is a real fantasy I had when I was a kid. It’s cool to finally see it becomes true in my animation.”
As with all Siqi’s work, there’s a tangible texture to the film, thanks to her extensive use of wool in the design and build of characters and environments. “This material is very soft and delicate,” she says. “It can create imagery that conveys the theme of the film: family, childhood and memories. I think finding the right materials that work with the specific story is important for a stop-motion film. I’m always trying to take advantage of using the magic of animation to convey serious topics through humour and imagination.”
SISTER is Siqi’s first narrative film and represented a challenge in that regard. “I was learning the craft of storytelling as I proceeded,” she says. “I wanted to keep the message clear but also subtle, the story delightful but also powerful, and establish a bitter-sweet sibling relationship.” The narrative is deftly handled and that central (eventually fictitious) relationship is both fraught and caring at the same time. Asked what the central message is that she’s conveying in SISTER, Siqi replies: “This film is dedicated to siblings, a special bond that some people have but some people did not have the chance to have in our generation.”