The Frog Princess (Царевна-лягушка, 1954) by Mihail Tsehanovskiy

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The Frog Princess
Tsarevna-lyagushka (ru)
Princezná žaba (sk)
Princeza žaba (sr)
Nàng công chúa ếch (vi)

Year 1954
Director(s) Tsehanovskiy Mihail
Studio(s) Soyuzmultfilm
Language(s) Russian
Genre(s) Comedy
Folklore & myth (Rus./East Slavic)
War & battles
Animation Type(s)  Drawn (cel)
Length 00:40:00
Wordiness 9.5 profile Ru, En
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Ivan Tsarevich must marry a frog and do battle against Koschei the Deathless. Adapted from classic Russian folk tales.

1960 - 1st IFF in Mar del Plata (Argentina) - "Silver Oak Leaf" Prize






As I have said many times, the theme of "a hero saving a beauty" is extremely rare in Asian literature. It seems that the closer we get to the Mediterranean region, the more such anecdotes become. If we look at it from a statistical perspective, stories like this in Asia usually only appear in ancient times or among less civilized peoples. At this point, I do not mean to offend, but it is the harsh reality of Asian society. Asians in the past greatly respected priests and intellectuals, so those who practiced music and weapons were considered low class and even received very few benefits. That obviously led to a situation where Western European colonialism penetrated very easily, and to this day, Asians still do not have enough confidence to physically compete with Europeans. But well, that's history !

The story of bogatyr Dăm Jông is most closely related to The Frog Princess. Of course, Vietnamese folks also have a little story called The boy who married a toad (Chàng lấy vợ cóc), but it's not very famous, at the same time, the story is also very sketchy : A student who did not yet pass the exam accidentally had to marry a toad that lived in a rice field, then the toad helped him pass the exam to become a royal official.

Dăm Jông is a huge epic of the Bâhnar people, which is often told to the villagers by old men at night. They will sit by the fire in a large house, drink wine and eat grilled meat, then listen to old people tell stories. This is a very good form of community activity ! I think, Beowulf was also born in this form. However, the film adaptation was produced in 1986, at that time the Western Highlands of Vietnam was very tense because of ethnic and religious conflicts, so we can completely understand that the villains in the film symbolizes the threat from outside to Vietnam.

Western Highlands region was formerly known as Central Highlands, because it is located in the middle of the Vietnam map and has a strategic position that cannot be overlooked. In 1975, the South Vietnam regime collapsed within just a month after losing Central Highlands. By 1978, Vietnamese divisions only needed a week to move from this location to Cambodge to destroy the Khmer Rouge. However, although considered the "center", the culture of this region has little interaction with other regions, so it retains very primitive habits of the world. The ethnic groups in this region are quite close to the groups from Oceania in terms of genetics. To this day, they still weave clothes from linen so they are only black, and keep the habit of going barefoot. Even their music is quite monotonous and dull. Since the introduction of Protestantism, then Vietnamese, French, American and especially communist culture, foreign forces (mainly Vietnam) created images of muscular Western Highlands warriors, awesome conquests of wild beasts and evan jubilant rock music. However, if anyone comes into contact with the indigenous people, they will easily be disappointed :

The Western Highlands has many ethnic groups, but the language is less diverse and slow to change. They probably only belong to a race with dark skin and small figure, but later due to many reasons of war or migration, it became difficult to get along. Previously, they only lived nomadic lives, worshiping statues carved on wooden pillars and living in high houses to avoid wild animals ; later, they were guided by the French to grow rubber, coffee and some other industrial crops. The area where they live has a hot and dry climate most of the year, but there are still terrible rainy seasons. Because underground are ancient volcanic craters, the soil is all basalt. Although it is good for plants, when it rains, it becomes thick mud that is very harmful to vehicles. This region generally has frequent earthquakes, so it will be related to the story I am about to tell below.

Dăm Jông has a number of slang words and honorifics that are only appropriate for the Western Highlands context. The people of the Western Highlands, specifically in this story the Bâhnar people (bâhnar = mountain), mainly live in villages, so they often call each other as "lũ làng" (all villagers), which similar to "everyone" or "everybody" in English language. Elderly persons are often called "già" (old one), the young male is "dăm" (the lad) and female (both old and young) is "bia" (the lady). In addition, respectable men are called "bok" (sir, mister, uncle....). Besides, "yàng" means "Heavenly God". So, an example : "Bok Kei-dei" is the name of God in Protestant faith from Western Highlands.

As I mentioned above, the Western Highlands is landlocked and completely high mountains, so ethnic groups only live in villages and it seems that for a long time they only looked at life from this perspective. In the epics (h'amon), the heroes' journey just means going from village to village, forest to forest, mountain to mountain. Thus, the protagonist and antagonist both come from the villages. Let's talk about Bok Drăng-hă Drăng-hơm first : This character appears in many epics and only has a villainous position. That seems to be a sorcerer capable of controlling all supernatural elements, and his name means "giant bird". According to epic Dăm Noi (Noi is Jông's grandson), Drăng-hă Drăng-hơm is the owner of a village and has four very beautiful daughters. The reason he was strong was because he had soon linked up with many other powerful chiefs. HOWEVER, because he often left home to conquer, his family became the heroes' target of conquest. Here, we can partly understand that the image of Drăng-hă Drăng-hơm is the ancients' interpretation of the phenomenon of volcanoes and hot winds. Also note that the summer climate in Vietnam is influenced by hot winds from the Indian Ocean.

Dăm Jông's story keeps repeating the image of the sun and the moon. Therefore, we can say that Bia K'Ni and Dăm Jông represent the moon and the sun respectively. Are not the golden shield and silver spear like the souls of the sun and moon ? The mountain god gave the gourd water which contains water to Dăm Jông to remind him to fight for his homeland. The belief of many ethnic minorities in Vietnam is that human ancestors were born from a gourd. There is another legend about the birth of the sun and moon : There was a brother and sister in that family who were guilty of incest, so the villagers chased them away, and they fled to the sky to become the sun and moon.

All in all, Dăm Jông's story is like Ivan Tsarevich's journey, it is the growth process of a person's life.



It's strange ! I still clearly remember the short newsreel that was broadcast on the Central Channel (VTV) when I was very young. In it, it described the behind-the-scenes work of the crew whom produced Dăm Jông the Braveheart. This is probably the first Vietnamese film to apply the classic techniques of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

As we all know, because of the war situation, Vietnamese animation mostly developed in the puppet and cutout genres. This factor has even influenced the digital age, when the latest films in 2024 still have very rigid movements. However, recently I received news that Vietnam Animation Studio has established an animation academy. But I still think it's unlikely, because our Vietnamese mindset is very passive, especially in the context of being "colonized" by Japanese anime for so long.

It can truly be said that the group of pioneering artists of Vietnamese animation (Lê Minh Hiền, Trương Qua, Ngô Mạnh Lân) are the rare heirs of Ivan Ivanov-Vano in Asia. However, because they couldn't follow the correct roadmap of the international animation, their talent dwindles very quickly. Hand-drawn animation is really the weakness of Vietnamese cinema : Initially, because of the problem of lack of raw materials (paper, ink, workplace and especially human resources were too few) ; then, the lack of interaction with the world ; finally, the laziness (a serious disease of all communist countries).

In film Dăm Jông, we can see an elephant spraying water, or the first raindrops of the rice season. The artists put the scene's table behind a large glass panel, then they used a pen to draw white ink on the glass to create water drops. Later, in other film projects, they continued to create rivers or streams with cellophane. This is cellophane with wrinkles to create the illusion of waves ; they are very inexpensive ingredients in markets and are often used to store dried tea or sugar.

In general, something what makes animated films attractive comes from the economy of materials and how to utilize those materials. Since the early 2000s, Vietnamese animation has really died in the sinking ("chết chìm", the words from Vietnamese newspapers) because of too much waste of personnel and techniques. Nowaday, we have facilities similar to what made the blockbuster Avatar, but in reality, digital graphics companies can only outsource to foreign partners and are of course despised. As far as I know, two films that represent this problem are Kirikou 3 (Kirikou et la Sorcière) and First Squad (Первый отряд). Recently, Vietnam has only had two products that have begun to have some resonance overseas, which are Say Hi Pencil and Wolfoo. However, these films do not receive the attention of Vietnamese people, because they are all wordless animated-films and their stories do not even have any Vietnamese identity.


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