Grandma And Her Ghosts (Mo fa a ma)

Taiwan (1998) Dir. Wang Shaudi

Depending on the age they were born, many children tend to grow up with grandparents who are past middle age – in other words, they are grey haired or fast approaching it, making them almost mystical in our eyes. I doubt many of us who have grandparents with spiritual powers but if they did, what a blast it would be.

Five year-old DouDou is sent to stay with his Grandma in a small rural town while his mother has to go overseas where her husband has been in an accident. DouDou finds Grandma’s house a bit creepy, becoming distraught when his mother leaves him there alone. DouDou learns his Grandma can communicate with ghosts and every July, she hosts the Pudu Feast for hungry spirits before they can pass through the Ghost Gate.

When Grandma is called away, DouDou snoops around the house, accidentally opening a jar containing an evil spirit which possesses Grandma’s cat Kulo, and proceeds to eat all the other spirits to make it stronger before wreaking havoc. As the possessed Kulo gets bigger, he persuades an unhappy DouDou to sell his Grandma, a ploy to distract her so he can exercise his plan of destruction.

Because of the dominance of anime, it is understandable to assume any animation from Asian countries not called Japan will bear a similar aesthetic. This is unrealistic and unfair, especially is Studio Ghibli is our automatic benchmark. Not meaning to be rude but Grandma And Her Ghosts will never be mistaken for a Ghibli film (even if Kulo does resemble Kiki’s Jiji).

One thing it does share with Japanese and Chinese animation is the cultural significance of the story being resolutely bespoke to Taiwan, although I’m sure many elements will be familiar to avid anime viewers. Being a fantasy tale, there is a strong flavour of Asian spiritualism regarding death and the afterlife, and how their folklore invites a colourful and zestful depiction of spirits which we lack in the west.

Grandma is quite a character herself in design, with weirdly orange skin and a roughly-drawn face that is less human, an odd way to denote her many years on earth but this an animation, so exaggerations like this are fair game I suppose. Along with her perma-scowl mien, her appearance is at least off putting for DouDou who is about to find even scarier things about the house, like sentient toadstools and the odd collection of jars is the basement.

The latter of course becomes a problem for everyone after DouDou’s curiosity gets the better of him, not quite killing the cat in the process but demonic possession can be as good as. It forces Grandma to explain to DouDou about her other job aside from fish stall owner – how she is a Taoist shaman and performs ceremonies for the departed to free their spirits and help them on their way.  

Every July, the Ghost Gate is open for the whole month for spirits to pass through, with the 15th being the Pudu Feast. In case you are wondering how ghosts can be hungry, the belief is evil spirits or those who don’t have families in the living world to mourn them, are cursed with narrow throats and food burning their mouths if they try to eat. The Pudu Feast is the one day of the year this curse is lifted.

It is ideas like this which make Asian folklore and culture so appealing and fun for us westerners, and provide such fertile ground for creative folk in every branch of the arts. It’s a great base for some cod-supernatural hijinks as well as a life lesson for DouDou to share with other youngsters about respecting their elders and other people – that is if the idea of giant demonic cat doesn’t give them nightmares first.

Kulo becomes a dangerous evil presence, sucking the life out of any living being as well as other spirits and owing to humungous proportions. Before this, he preys on DouDou, desperate to go home to his parents, convincing him to sell Grandma like an old car for scrap, by collecting three lots of tears from Grandma. As a bonus, if DouDou rubs the tears in his own eyes, he can see ghosts like his Grandma can, which he tries.

Sure enough, when DouDou meets Ah-Min, a boy who delivers fish to Grandma, who is carrying a huge killer whale until it can pass through the Ghost Gate, the large mammal is visible to him. DouDou also meets a mute girl with talking teddy and a snake called Flat which was run over, and offers to take them to the Pudu Feast. But evil Kulo has other ideas.

As I said earlier, comparing this film to anime is a kneejerk reaction built on familiarity and over exposure on our part but one might find the overall texture of the artwork is very anime-like, specifically the 90s cell drawn era. Perhaps this can’t be helped, but what is important to discuss is how rare Taiwanese animation is – in fact, the Taiwanese government funded its making to rectify this.

Visually, the influences are drawn from anime as much as they are western animation, with nods to the sloppiness of late 60s Hanna Barbera cartoons, to the wild abandon of 70s adult fare like Fritz The Cat. It all comes together with a discernible Taiwanese touch found in the energy and the cultural direction, yet remains wholly accessible, which is why it eludes me that a (spits) English dub release hasn’t been developed and full international distribution for wider exposure.

Running just 84 minutes, Grandma And Her Ghosts is not designed to be an epic work but a tidy, energetic, magically infused, and overall fun little romp about a boy and his eccentric grandmother. With bold colours, strong imagery, intriguing characters (well, DouDou can be annoying), and a big heart, this really should be better known among Asian animation fans.