HONG KONG FILMMAKERS are renowned for an ability to turn their hands to most genres - with the exception of animation. While the South Koreans and Japanese have been producing popular cartoons for years, Hong Kong only has two recent animated features to boast of: Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story and My Life As McDull. So, when the latter beat a strong field from around the world to win The Cristal For Best Feature (Grand Prix Annecy 2003) at the 27th Annecy International Animated Film Festival in Cannes on June 7, it marked a giant creative leap forward. Despite its raw attempts at merging two-dimensional animation with three-dimensional backgrounds, My Life As McDull - about the travails of a loveable piglet with an eye patch growing up in Hong Kong - has been a favourite with critics and audiences since it landed in our cinemas in 2001. The film won the Fipresci (International Film Critics Federation) award at the 2002 Hong Kong International Film Festival as well as best animated feature at the 39th Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, and has been playing to captivated audiences wherever it screens. Newspapers in France - where a French-dubbed version is expected to open in more than 50 cinemas across the country on July 2 - are already touting it as 'the film of the summer'. McDull is a full-fledged Hong Kong star. Not bad for a little pink pig. His life, however, never promised to unfurl that way. McDull started out as a secondary comic strip character playing second fiddle to cousin McMug. Both were created by illustrator Alice Mak Ka-bik and writer Brian Tse Lap-man 12 years ago as part a McMug comic strip they were developing. While elated over McDull's triumph at Annecy, Mak feels a little guilty as well. 'Original McMug fans are always asking me when I will do an animation for him. I keep telling them, 'soon, soon', but McDull is more popular,' says Mak, who is working on a 3-D McDull feature, Pineapple Bun Prince, which she hopes will make it to the cinemas in time for Christmas. The characters for McMug were created with a children's audience in mind, but have developed to appeal to a wider demographic. Fans of the two piglets now range from pre-schoolers to 40-somethings, and their popularity has spawned a side industry that includes the production of toys, educational material and accessories. There is an academic website devoted to them called University of McDull ( http://www.pantone021.com/sub/ mcmug/index.html). And the two little pigs even have their own credit cards - thanks to Hang Seng Bank. Unlike McMug, who comes from a stable and happy family, the odds are stacked against McDull from the start. The product of a broken home - we never meet his father - McDull is raised by his mother McBing. He is the epitome of a lovable underdog: slow on the uptake and dirt poor, he seems to have little hope of achieving the grandiose dreams his mother harbours for him. But McDull's never-say-die attitude always shines through, whether in the belief that his mother has taken him to the Maldives on a bus (it was actually the Peak) or that he can win the Cheung Chau bun race if he pumps up his little trotters enough. It's hard not to sympathise with such optimistic naivete, but underneath the cuteness is the stark reality of disillusionment that permeates many lives. '[Director] Lee Lik-chi called me after seeing the movie and said that it would be perfect if at the end of the movie, McDull's father returns as a millionaire. But I don't want to give false happiness; it's not realistic. It would be just two hours of happiness and that's all,' says Mak. 'McDull's world is very real, where there is poverty and disadvantage. What's important is that he doesn't let it get to him.' Although Mak shies away from making socio-political statements through her two piglets and the motley crew of characters that pepper her comic strip and animations, the artist hopes McDull and his friends provide some food for thought for her fans. He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but McDull knows he can rely on no one. His own hard work is what keeps him motivated and he attacks tasks with gusto and determination. 'I think there's a little bit of McDull in each of us, but we would never admit to being stupid. So we tend to look down on others who we think are not that bright. If people like McDull, I just hope that if they see these qualities in a friend, they can cast aside their own prejudices and love them like they do McDull,' says Mak. 'It's not a social statement; we're not doing anything magnanimous. But we must care about what's happening around us.' And perhaps therein lies the appeal of McDull and his friends.