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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Sandra Oh Rides High in New Animation WINDOW HORSES

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

When a film hits the zeitgeist like animation WINDOW HORSES, directed by Ann Marie Fleming, you’ve got to pay attention. Usually a preamble isn’t required in a film review, but WINDOW HORSES, voiced by Sandra Oh and in rotation this week at Santa Barbara International Film Festival starts with a funny story.

You’ve heard of President Trump’s Executive Order, known as “not-a-Muslim-ban,” on seven Muslim countries that is currently being litigated up and down the block in US lower courts?

Well, it has everybody on edge, and when Sandra Oh steps up for our interview, a leading question is posed: “Do you think this film is controversial? Because poetry is so controversial?” It’s supposed to be  joke that focuses away from the Iranian context in the film to the poetry aspect.

After all, it’s also voiced by Iranian star from Stoning of Soraya, Shohreh Aghdashloo, as well as Ellen Page and Canada’s Eddy Ko. Other Iranian-born actors besides Aghdashloo, include Hunger Game’s Omid Abtahi and Camyar Chaichian. Nancy Kwan voices the grandmother.

Sandra Oh, a woman known for her humor and delightful comedic acting chops, tightens up on reflex.  “I’d ask you how you’re presenting this — it sets up a certain type of point of view. I would disagree that it is controversial. I don’t believe it is controversial.” The main character, Rosie Ming, she voices is Chinese and Iranian, a Chinese mother and a father from Iran. “It should not be a controversial film. This film is about the relationship between a father and a daughter, finding herself, a young woman who finds out more about her culture.”

“We have to be aware about how we speak about things,” she admonishes, meaning how we address the concept of identity.

To put the query in context, animated WINDOW HORSES is about an aspiring poet named Rosie Ming who finds herself invited to an Iranian poetry festival in Shiraz. But raised by her Chinese grandparents after her mother’s untimely death and inability for her father to come back home after a visit to Iran, Rosie must swallow her abandonment issues to pursue her poetry dreams in an exotic setting. The works of Rumi are featured, it’s amazing really.

Luckily there’s a magic wand in journalism, it’s called “rephrasing,” as in let me rephrase that: “we’re talking about the M-word, which makes people uncomfortable lately in America.”

Sandra pivots, and you can see why she’s such a stellar comedian. “Which M-word? Do you mean Mexican or Muslim? Because right now there are two M-words.”

With that wry response, the WINDOW HORSES producer has nailed the immigration issue and its relevance to the #Muslimban, and border wall in line you couldn’t write better if you tried. And that’s what this animation is also about, how artful words, specifically verses of poetry, travel across borders, lands, races, religions, and time like nothing else on earth.

While she’s talking you think about all the Sandra Oh moments: how she kicks the crap out of that zany boyfriend in SIDEWAYS, how she ad libbed that “Can you Star 69 Italy?” line in UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (Diane Lane). And how you once heard her duke it out at an award show on hot mic with another actor, and how spontaneously hilarious it all was.

Director Ann Marie Fleming, also Canadian-born and friends with Oh, explains how she got involved. “Sandra and I were supposed to make a film together 20 years ago. The project didn’t happen, and I went to Germany, and she went to the US and continued her fabulous career.”

“Interestingly, Window Horses happened because of me going to Germany, living in a castle with writers from all over the world and hearing their stories.  So, in some ways, it was like a big circle. I had no idea she would even be available to do a voice-over, let alone think that she would become so involved in the making of the film.  The story touched her so much. She's the perfect spokesperson for the film, as well as having the perfect voice of the main character, Rosie.‎”

Oh reiterates her strong support for this film as, “Window Horses hits all the things that are important to me: it’s pro-girl, pro-tolerance, pro--diversity and PRO-ART! My nieces are mixed race and it’s very important to me that they see themselves represented in this society.”

Then when you ask if she has a tagline to summarize this daring poetry-inspired animation, Sandra pauses in reflection much like the surgeon she became famous for on ABC’s hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy.” Before she can finish the thought, you’ve got one handy.

WINDOW HORSES is a flawless and timely animation about poetry, Persia, and the politics of personal identity (with a poignant Chinese twist) voiced by the inimitable fan favorite Sandra Oh.

The film “will be screened at the the New York international Children’s film festival later this spring,” director Fleming adds. “Peace through poetry!”

WINDOW HORSES is in rotation at SBIFF now, and hits all the high marks for an inventive animation that encompasses social commentary without being about a message. For a list of awards won and more information, see their official website.


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