Film Review: Window Horses

Art, language and culture coalesce in this stirring animated tale about a young poet, of Iranian and Chinese descent, who discovers her heritage and her voice.
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Ann Marie Fleming’s illuminating animated feature Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming is a heartfelt testament to the wealth of possibilities unlocked through genuine understanding. Uncommonly concerned with depicting people from different backgrounds engaged in the radical act of listening to one another, the film revels in the simple yet profound pleasures of conversation and cultural exchange.

The spirit of collaboration is reflected not only in the titular heroine’s cross-cultural journey, but in the making of the movie itself. Fleming enlisted several guest directors and animators, who contribute stylistically distinctive sequences to the film’s vibrant, eclecticpalettein telling the story of Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), a young poet from Canada who’s invited to recite her work at an international poetry festival in Iran.

Rosie, the product of a Chinese mother, who died when Rosie was just a child, and an Iranian father, who disappeared from her life before her mother passed away, lives in Vancouver with her elderly grandparents, both from Hong Kong. They fully support her creativity and independence. Her grandmother, Gloria (Nancy Kwan), especially encourages Rosie’s romantic preoccupation with Paris, a city Rosie’s never visited. But neither of her grandparents—and not even Rosie’s best friend, Kelly (Ellen Page)—had the slightest idea that Rosie wrote poetry, let alone had self-published a book of her work, entitled My Eye Full: By a Person Who Has Never Been to France.

Window Horses can, in the vein of Rosie’s poetry, be too self-consciously cute at times, but the script, by Fleming, also tends to be quite witty, and thoughtful in its conception of Rosie as a young woman who’s never been far from home yet craves a connection to the whole world, almost desperately so. On the flight arriving in Iran, she doesn’t just join all the other women onboard by covering her head before deplaning. She dons the stark, full-body covering of a Muslim chador. As Rosie explains to one confused acquaintance who inquires about her garb, if she’s going to have to wear something while in Iran, she might as well go all the way.

Fleming has created in Rosie a charming, endearingly flawed artist-in-the-making, whom Oh performs with a bright expressiveness that compensates for the lack of detail in the character design and animation. Set against a flat but colorful landscape of trippy visuals, Rosie is drawn, for all intents and purposes, as a stick figure, while the other characters have the more oblong dimensions and distorted facial features of Modigliani paintings. Their faces are only slightly more expressive than Rosie’s—however, that deadpan effect suits the plainspoken honesty of the festival’s cultural ambassador, Mehrnaz (warmly voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo), and the brutal honesty of one of Rosie’s fellow poets at the festival, Dietmar (Don McKellar), a drolly aloof German who lives in Rosie’s beloved Paris.

Rosie and Dietmar comprise, along with a celebrated Chinese exile and a well-regarded American bard, among others, a congregation representing vast nations of talent and experience. In such company, Rosie, who still works at a fast-food restaurant, doubts her poems and herself. She wants to touch the world, but, as she’s reminded again and again, she hasn’t necessarily made the effort to listen enough, or study enough, or search enough to truly extend her reach. She knows little about Paris other than berets and baguettes, and knows nothing of Iran’s centuries-old tradition of poetry. She wears the chador with scant understanding of what that choice implies.

Rosie almost always means well, but she doesn’t always get it. Most importantly, though, she keeps trying, and she does start listening and learning, and so do Dietmar and Mehrnaz and the festival director, Cyrus (Camyar Chaichian), who does all he can to help Rosie discover the truth about what happened to her father after the Islamic Revolution. In her willingness to empathize with others, Rosie engages their sympathies, their support and respect. The film makes it clear that it’s her open nature that enables her to experience this best-case scenario.

Wielding common sense and a sharp dose of humor, Window Horses provides a lovely lesson in the history of Persia and the land’s great poets, and a poignant, entertaining illustration of a 13th-century Persian verse quoted in the film: “If one cannot feel sympathy for the troubles of others, one cannot be called human.”

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