Film Review: ‘Up We Soar’: Love and Faith in the Face of Brutal Persecution

December 8, 2020 Updated: December 9, 2020

Why does the Epoch Times exist? Because of the dedication of its staff to truthful, unbiased, non-partisan old-school journalism, traditional values, and an enhanced appreciation of freedom of speech due to many staff members having lived under the tyranny of Communist rule.

Those are the high-profile reasons. The foundational reason, however, is that The Epoch Times is the only newspaper in the world that dares to blow the whistle on Communist China’s ongoing persecution of its prisoners of conscience, the brutality of which is unrivaled in the history of mankind.

a prison exit in "Up We Soar"
A prison camp in China, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

“Oh sure, I’d have spoken up against Hitler and the Nazis if I’d lived back then.” We all say it. But, as during World War II, most of the world is oblivious to the scale of the crimes committed against humanity, this time perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Epoch Times knows because we have a lot of Chinese staff members who’ve been and seen. And so that’s what we do. We speak up.

Here’s a review of the animated documentary, “Up We Soar,” produced by two affiliates of the Epoch Times: New Realm Studios and New Tang Dynasty Television. It depicts a recent, true story of the courage, love, and perseverance of one family who lived in the shadow of the Communism currently menacing China, and, indeed, the world.

Opening Scene

Beijing, China: On a stuffy summer night, under a dim street light, with mosquitos hovering, 7-year-old Fuyao lies on a bench, with her head on her mother’s lap, wondering what her future holds.

Her father, a former news anchor, is doing forced labor. Fuyao and her mother are under house arrest, living in the school where her mom, Wang Huijuan, previously taught. Huijuan is not allowed to teach anymore; they are only allowed to take a shower once a month.

Why? Fuyao’s parents are practitioners of the peaceful spiritual practice Falun Gong, a powerful form of the Chinese energy practice known as Qigong (related to Tai Chi), rooted in Buddhist tradition, which was banned and vilified in China as of 1999.

The practice was outlawed when the CCP (which was initially highly enthusiastic about the practice) discovered there were more people practicing Falun Gong (100 million) than there were members of the Party.

Fuyao’s parents are victims of a new wave of religious persecution. Books are banned and burned. Falun Gong exercises and meditation are strictly prohibited. The state’s propaganda machine demonizes the practice, labeling it “evil” and millions are taken by police, many of whom are tortured to death.

Fighting Outer Oppression

For children in China, their parents hold up the sky, are the source of all happiness and stability—the sense of parental reverence being stronger in Chinese culture. So when Fuyao’s father is arrested in handcuffs by the police, as well as by “friends” he knows, before her very eyes, and then publicly humiliated on the TV show he was an employee of, little Fuyao’s world is shattered.

little girl follows mother in "Up We Soar"
Fuyao with her mother in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Furthermore, Fuyao quickly goes from being popular to being bullied, beaten, teased, isolated, and having to wear old, ill-fitting clothes that her mother pieces together.

Huijuan is eventually forced to leave Fuyao to avoid incarceration, suffering much while running from the law. She’s arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for distributing leaflets and DVDs that deconstruct the government’s anti-Falun Gong propaganda. What do these fliers say? Basically, “Falun Dafa is good.” You can easily die for that in China. Now, Fuyao is all alone.

a cityscape in China in "Up We Soar"
A cityscape in China, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Fighting Inner Oppression

The film is a testament to the inner work of the Falun Gong practice (also known as Falun Dafa). Although only 7, Fuyao grasps the tenets of the philosophy and puts them into practice with a wisdom far beyond her years.

She’s kind, not cowardly, brave, not reckless, and when beaten by the boys in her class she remains steadfast in her resolve not to react in anger and retribution, but embraces an approach similar to the Christian instruction of turning the other cheek. Her resolve is to remain inwardly undaunted yet peaceful, striving always to manifest the three main principles of the practice in her life, namely, truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.

girl looks at garden in "Up We Soar"
Fuyao, now grown, contemplates her future, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Fuyao’s mother (who was an elementary school teacher of some renown prior to the persecution; county dignitaries were eager to send their children to her class), is beaten in prison until she almost completely lost her hearing. This was punishment for protesting on behalf of others being tortured.

woman tied to chair in prison in "Up We Soar"
Huijuan is beaten in jail to the point of deafness, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Although surrounded by murderers, drug dealers, and brutal prison guards, her only weakness (being the mother of a small child) is exploited by the prison guards, who try to coerce her to reject her faith. At one point the police take little Fuyao to the detention center, hoping she can persuade her mother to quit the practice, instructing her to “Cry hard!”

mother braids daughter's hair in "Up We Soar"
Fuyao (voiced by Crystal Shi, L) has her hair braided by her mother while visiting her in jail, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Instead, their brief reunion strengthens both of their resolves; her mother gradually regains her inner strength and is able to nurture and safeguard her daughter Fuyao during her turbulent teenage years, through letters, as well as win over her previously hostile, illiterate cellmates by writing letters for them.

girl stands under street light, reading in "Up We Soar"
Fuyao reads a letter from her incarcerated mother, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Postscript

Fuyao’s parents, after their release from prison, were unable to resume their previous jobs. Around 2014, the family left China separately, finally reuniting in the United States.

a girl writes a letter at a desk in "Up We Soar"
Fuyao writes to her incarcerated mother, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

Today, Fuyao and her father work at an independent media company in New York, and Fuyao’s mother is teaching Chinese language and traditional culture.

The Takeaway

This film will resonate with children as well as adults for its deep exploration of humanity and relationships, and will draw more people’s attention to the serious issue of persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and their families in Mainland China.

My only criticisms are that the story is sometimes lacking in tension, but it’s a minor transgression (and a common one) for relative newcomers to the laws of theatrical production and show business. The score is perhaps a bit sentimental for American tastes.

Also, the film could do a better job explaining aspects of the Falun Gong practice, such as, for example, the term “Fa,” which means “Buddha Law.” Even so, hearing passages of recited poetry pertaining to the practice in the setting of this animated film, I was struck by the power behind what will undoubtedly sound mystical to untrained ears. But I daresay it may function, in reality, as an enticement for spiritual seekers interested in learning Asian energy and meditative practices.

prisoners stand in prison in cell in "Up We Soar"
Hostile prisoners in Wang Huijuan’s prison cell, in “Up We Soar.” (New Realm Studios/NTD Television)

That said, with limited budget and no prior experience of making animation films, “Up We Soar” was a challenge for the New Realm Studios production team. Impressively, it’s already been well received professionally, and has been selected by several animation film festivals, including the prestigious Sparks Animation Festival and CINANIMA. It most recently won Best Feature award by the Los Angeles Animation Festival.

Director’s Statement

Yan Ma, director and producer, is a Toronto-based filmmaker, passionate about documentary films that speak to significant social issues in our world today.

As Ma says, “The great Chinese philosopher Lao Zi writes, ‘True goodness is like water, in that it benefits everything and harms nothing.’ The persecution of Falun Gong is probably the biggest human rights persecution in contemporary China under the communist regime, involving tens of millions of people who have been suppressed for their peaceful beliefs. Countless families have been broken. Many many children have lost their parents. We made this film to bring attention to this issue, especially to the children of Falun Gong families who have become orphans.

“We also want to explore how, under the harsh communist ruling, people are able to keep their conscience and faith despite the hardships.

“In researching the story of “Up We Soar,” the experience of this mother and daughter touched me deeply. The two faced severe persecution in China, but they responded with goodness and inner strength. In doing so, they transformed their surroundings and brought hope to those around them. This mother and daughter show that goodness, like water, is soft, but also powerful. From them, I can’t see resentment. I can’t see trauma. I can only feel warm energy like sunshine.”

“Up We Soar” is premiering on Dec. 20 on the website and YouTube channels of The Epoch Times and NTD.

Chinese man and woman in "Up We Soar"
Yan Ma (L), director and producer, is a Toronto-based filmmaker, passionate about documentary films that speak to significant social issues in our world today. Wenjing Ma (no relation), co-producer and co-scriptwriter, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in New York.

‘Up We Soar’
Director: Yan Ma
Starring: Li Fuyao voiced by Sofie Wen (Mandarin) and Crystal Shi (English), Wang Huijuan voiced by Ma Wenjing (Mandarin) and Kay Rubacek (English)
Rating: G, Animation
Running Time: 50 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 20, 2020
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch