'Window Horses' is Visual Poetry

Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming)
(Canada, 88 min.)
Written and directed by Ann Marie Fleming
Starring; Sandra Oh, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Nancy Kwan, Don McKellar, Ellen Page
Rosie and Mehrnaz in Window Horses.
Photo courtesy of the NFB.

“The more you learn about others, the deeper your understanding of yourself. This is the journey we are all on,” says wise Iranian poet Mehrnaz (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to budding Canadian poet Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh). As they tour the colourful flowers of Iran, Rosie’s host illuminates her on the rich history that makes the country the land of poets.

Virtually every nation considers itself the land of poets, though, as Rosie Ming discovers while meeting artists from around the world at the poetry festival she attends in Shiraz, Iran. It’s the first time that Rosie, a mixed-race Canadian—her late mom was Chinese and estranged father is Persian—has ever left her home in Vancouver, so this festival offers a world of encounters as she trades stories with fellow poets and learns the great backstories and histories behind every verse. This film from Ann Marie Fleming is one of the most relevant films of the year with its diverse canvas. As Rosie Ming’s Persian epiphany celebrates the range of experiences and cultures the world has to share, each story she hears tells of a rich and complex place. The multiplicity of voices unite in the film’s magical tapestry.

Window Horses puts Rosie on this journey of self-discovery after she self-publishes her first book of poetry. It’s a handsome collection that draws upon the young woman’s romantic idea of Paris as the land of art, poets, love, and inspiration. Stuck in a rut in the ho-hum plainness of Vancouver, this little stick girl has naïve ideas of the world and of herself that really need to open up the sharp little eyes that cut across her small face.

Rosie’s a peculiar looking girl, and Fleming wouldn’t have it any other way. The character is the filmmaker’s long-time avatar and alter ego known as Stick Girl. She’s a funny one with her pink triangle skirt, wiry frame, and bobbly bubblehead with two pink-beaded ponytails that wiggle around like antennae. Rosie’s unique appearance makes her stand out amidst the fully fleshed-out characters who populate the rest of the film, like her grandparents, voiced by Nancy Kwan and Eddy Ko, and the Picasso-esque Mehrnaz. What offers an initial distraction becomes a wonderful image of uniqueness, individuality, and identity as Rosie explores myriad cultures and histories while savouring poetry from around the globe.

Rosie’s wiry frame is an endless vehicle for droll physical comedy, too, as the young girl is perpetually awkward and outsized at every moment until her big show. Flipping burgers with her friend Kelly (Ellen Page) at the fast food joint in town, Rosie slings patties onto the floor and splashes salt all over the place handling tools and doo-dads for which she looks grossly outmatched. The Midas touch, she has not.

Window Horses then wraps up Rosie’s wispy appearance when her grandma gives her a big black chador to cover herself in the Islamic nation. The chador, which is like a burka, but it doesn’t cover the face, offers Rosie a humorous cloak into which she may disappear during awkward moments of her journey. Whether pulling the cloak completely covering her head or slipping down beneath its shoulders, the images make the young girl drolly relatable as she escapes her discomfort.

Oh’s vocal performance gives a delightful depth of body and wit to the delicate Miss Ming. Playing to Rosie’s awkwardness, inquisitiveness, and sense of romantic longing, Oh complements the pleasing sense of humour of Fleming’s animation and script. The voices in the supporting cast bring their own assets to the film from the warmth and compassion of Aghdashloo’s Mehrnaz to the spazzy youthfulness of Page’s brief turn as Kelly. Don McKellar is especially funny as a brooding German poet whom Rosie befriends on her travels, and his rich accent becomes twice as humorous when one recognises the source of the voice.

Rosie opens up as she listens to her fellow poets and hears about their own journeys in between the poetry readings dispersed throughout the film. These readings draw upon the poets’ diverse backgrounds and Fleming makes the multicultural mosaic of Window Horses an essential part of its aesthetic as she invites an impressive roster of animators to offer unique visual interpretations of each poet’s verse. The central narrative of Rosie’s journey favours a singular style, but the different readings pepper the film with a variety of styles and flavours as each culture puts its own accent on the film. Each vignette ultimately becomes part of Window Horses’ beautiful tapestry as the stories and cultural mythologies add colour to Rosie’s own tale.

Window Horses is visual poetry in its best and purest sense. The exquisite palette of colours and offbeat style, which is both cartoonishly simple given Rosie’s frame and artfully sophisticated given Fleming’s inclusive canvas, provide a sumptuous and refreshing performance for the eyes as Window Horses lets one marvel at all the hues the world has to offer. The spunkiness of Stick Girl makes Window Horses both appropriate and accessible for younger audiences, but there’s arguably more here to satisfy a mature crowd that will appreciate the imagery and themes, which, like the best of poems, are far more complex than they initially appear. With its depth, warmth, humour, and heart, Window Horses is a gift of poetic wonder.

Window Horses screened at Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival.
It’s currently doing the festival thing and will be released in 2017.
Visit Window Horses.com for more information.