After a cruel childhood, one must reinvent oneself. Then reimagine the world. More or less, that’s the tough process that people with childhood trauma—such as child abuse—have to go through. To navigate a whole new optimistic world out of the feeling of helplessness and confusion, to then somehow make sense of the world they live in. What’s heartbreaking, family members are more likely to be the perpetrators of child abuse, including sexual abuse.
These topics aren’t what I expected watching Strawberry Candy (2020), knowing absolutely nothing before I stepped into the screening theatre. Strawberry Candy (2020) is part of the selection of works that were presented in Image Forum Festival 2020 East Asian Experimental Competition Section, one of the guest programs in Minikino Film Week 7. By looking at the photo stills, the short looks like a heartwarming animation, with an adorable art style reminiscent of children’s drawings. In actuality, it’s the polar opposite. Strawberry Candy (2020) gave us a heartbreaking retelling of a child’s traumatic experience of being sexually abused. With the use of children’s drawings as the art style, Strawberry Candy (2020) blurs the line between dreams and reality. Creating a harrowing film about child sexual abuse, seen through the eyes of children. This short animation left a big impression on me, making it one of my favorite short films I’ve ever watched.
Strawberry Candy (2020) follows a Chinese girl of about kindergarten age retelling her days, accompanied by monologue and illustrations in the form of a child’s drawing. We see her narrating her days. How she adored her red marble that her father gave at Children’s Day, how she hates the boys that bully her and her sweet relationship with her mother. Nianze Li, the director, gradually intensifies the film by creating an ambiguous and uneasy feeling that hints that the child is a victim of domestic sexual abuse by her grandfather.
Sexual abuse on children can have a long-term impact on emotional, social, and educational development which could trigger mental health issues in their later years. Working Together to Safeguard Children defines domestic sexual abuse as a behavior that involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The fact that victims of child sexual abuse might not even be aware that their victims is devastating. They might not know the thing that happened to them is wrong, which could lead to a state of guilt and confusion.
Nianze Li tried to portray the guilt and confusion, through emulating a child’s perspective that avoids a sense of adult construct. In her blog, Nianze Li stated that Strawberry Candy (2020) was based on thorough research on domestic child abuse, not on her own personal experience. She decided to approach this issue by using the victim’s point of view to stimulate empathy for the audience. This point of view was elevated in a form of a simplistic animation in the style of a child’s drawings, specifically using colored pencils to create delicate changes that parallel the child’s psychological changes. The adorable, colored pencil drawings were meant to display a juxtaposition of the story’s dark theme, creating a feeling of unease.
That feeling of unease was further endorsed by the innocent monologue of the child. We see her confused, guilted, and ashamed as to what her grandfather is doing to her. Meanwhile, the audience was very well aware that her grandfather is taking advantage of her. Bits of the monologue broke my heart, such as her grandfather’s hand on her thigh that feels as hot as a stove, and the sense of powerlessness when her grandfather said, “it’s our secret”, as he gave her a red strawberry candy. The child drawings and the use of anthropomorphic characters that represent her and her grandfather made it seem like it was her dream. The child questions her experience, whether it was a dream or reality. To her relief, she convinced herself that it was a dream. As it was shown in her monologue, “It’s a dream, I knew it”. Yet, the film ends with us, the audience, knowing well that it was real.
Blurring dreams and reality, Strawberry Candy (2020) often uses symbolization to represent her feelings. The anthropomorphic characters, the blooming flowers stomped by a big rock and the red marble that was given by her father and taken by the boys (which both coincidentally happen to be men). Lastly, the strawberry candy that her grandfather gave after he told her not to tell anyone about their secret. These symbols could very well mean different things. However, I see them all represent the loss of innocence within a child. Especially the red marble/strawberry candy parallel that became the most prominent symbol in the film.
I believe the red marble/strawberry candy symbolizes her purity. The red marble was first given by her father, a parent. It was passed down as a blank slate of purity in the child. Then, we see them taken by the boys next door. The red marble was lost due to people in her environment or society. Her first experience of loss. With her red marble lost, she gained a similar item from her grandfather; a strawberry candy. The strawberry candy acts as a bribe from her grandfather to keep silent about the atrocious act that he did to her. While she contemplates what just happened to her, she found that the strawberry candy melted in her pocket. Leaving a red stain on her skirt. This specific image leads me to believe that the grandfather did something to her. As the red stain on her skirt mirrors that of blood, which relates to menstruation or bleeding of the hymen. It is absolutely devastating to think back to that image.
Childhood has been one of the most interesting themes in the cinema or any other form of media. Children are often used as merely a mascot to radiate the feeling of happiness and fun; the child in all its child-likeness. Kids’ TV shows and movies often used this as a means to attract children and toddlers. On the other hand, there are other uses of childhood in media that aim to explore a wide range of themes. Most prominently to critique the adult world in an innocent nature, often using the power of imagination. Strawberry Candy (2020) addressed the issue of domestic child sexual abuse from the perspective of a child.
I feel like people need to realize these issues in a more empathetic way. Beyond data, statistics, and infographics. Films like Strawberry Candy (2020) offer a new perspective towards domestic child abuse, albeit being a harrowing cinematic experience. Films that offer a new perspective could move the audience and help raise awareness of important issues happening around us. I’d like to end this writing with the director’s message regarding child abuse, as stated in her blog: “I pray that the abuse of children will disappear from the world as soon as possible”.
Strawberry Candy (Director: Li Nianze/ China, Japan/ 2020/ 07:00) was screened in Chase After-Images program at Minikino Film Week 7, Bali International Short Film Festival. The guest programmer, Kana Akahori (Image Forum Film Festival, Japan), selected works which was presented in Image Forum Festival 2020 East Asian Experimental Competition Section.