Big Fish & Begonia (Cert PG)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 105 minutes approx.
Whilst the Chinese animation industry has been in existence since the 1920’s is hasn’t had the same international exposure as other countries. Looking to change this is a film that was a true labour of love for two friends that took over a decade to make under challenging circumstances, born from the simple desire to make something different.
Based on a parable from the ancient Chinese Taoist Book of Zhuangzi and the fable Classic of Mountains and Seas, the setting for this fantasy tale is a mystical realm deep below the human world where magical beings reside. A young girl, Chun, is to participate in the Rites of Passage ritual where teenagers are sent to the human world to experience life there for a week.
In the form of a red dolphin, Chun is transported via a whirlpool portal to the human world but her journey is cut short when she becomes trapped in a net during a storm. A young boy frees Chun but he drowns in the process. Returning to her own world, Chun seeks help to resurrect the boy, making the sacrifice of half her own life in return for his, but his presence in this world, as a dolphin named Kun, brings about misfortune for all.
There is good news and bad news for writer-directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. The good news is that Big Fish & Begonia is a fantastic film heralding a new dawn for Chinese animation; the bad news is that they will have to endure constant comparisons to the works of Studio Ghibli when discussing their film. For every reference that is aesthetic, some plot beats and character designs are rather blatant in where their origins lay.
Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Ponyo are the most prominent sources, the former coming perilously close to being copied almost verbatim in some scenes, but there are touches of Makoto Shinkai in the astounding artwork. Luckily, Xuan and Chun have injected enough of their own ideas and traditional Chinese flavour into the film to earn some charity from us.
How much of the references to traditional Chinese folklore one will understand depends on your prior knowledge of the subject, otherwise this borders on the incomprehensible. Unlike Ghibli or other anime based on classic fables, Begonia’s script presumes the audience has at least a working knowledge of such texts and sadly does little to expand on them for the less aware.
The world inhabited by Chun is located far beyond the ocean, with the seas we know acting a bridge between the two realms, thus their “sky” is our sea with fish “flying” overhead like birds in our sky. Confused? I can see why. However whilst Chun’s people can visit the human world, the reverse cannot happen so Chun is making a huge request of the Soul Keeper when asking for her rescuer to be revived.
With his soul placed in the form of a tiny dolphin and interlinked to Chun’s life span, she will die when either he does or his soul is ready to return to the human world. This is a huge sacrifice but Chun’s guilt is enough for her to agree to it. Her best friend Qui is not so happy about this but supports Chun is keeping Kun safe until the word spreads among the other denizens, blaming Kun for the storms that hit their world.
Chun is from the classic Ghibli heroine template – feisty, strong willed, selfless and resourceful, finding herself in a moral quandary when the devastation of the storm divides her loyalties between Kun and her people. Yet there is not much we get to know about her, a flaw of the script that applies to everyone involved and this magical domain, which the few quotes from Taoist philosophy about the afterlife and spirituality don’t help to elucidate.
Similarly, we’re not entirely certain why these people have magical abilities, why Chun’s grandmother is a large bird, or why her elderly grandfather turns into a giant Begonia tree when he dies. Then there is the Soul Keeper, cat lover and collector of souls of good people, and his opposite, a woman who collects the souls of sinners and commands rats. She was outcast to the underground but why is not expanded upon. At least the rats are funny!
Fortunately again, these are areas which Xuan and Chun compensate for with the utterly gorgeous and immersive presentation, proving effective in holding our attention and distracting us from these quibbles. The colour palette is bold and vibrant, using primary colours for the foreground and expanding for the textures of the backgrounds. Whether sunny, wintry, or rainy, the landscapes create a tangible and evocative sensation that permeates through the screen.
A combination of 2D and CGI animation was used and the blending is smooth, the latter more of an enhancement than a prominent feature. The musical score from Japanese composer Kiyoshi Yoshida will incur further anime comparisons but there is plenty of Chinese flavour in his compositions in what is otherwise a delightfully emotive, non-partisan soundtrack.
The end results are truly sumptuous; given the decade-plus turbulence of the film’s production, this achievement feels especially triumphant. Lack of financing, departing staff and even Chun briefly quitting should have derailed it for good, but Xuan persisted, getting a boost from a crowdfunding campaign in 2013 and finally completing it in 2016, proving dreams can come true.
Big Fish & Begonia might have it is faults, the biggest being the awkward pacing and the philosophical nature of its whimsical roots being lost in translation, but it gets more right than it does wrong. Visually it holds its own against any anime film, and tells a dramatic story with a positive, life-affirming message.
Put your comparisons to Studio Ghibli aside and allow yourself to be seduced by this stunning, charming, and forward thinking fantasy adventure that should give Chinese animators a greater confidence on the international stage of animated cinema.
English Language 2.0 Stereo LCPM
English Language 5.1 DTS HD -MA
Mandarin Language 2.0 Stereo LCPM
Mandarin Language 5.1 DTS HD -MA
Big Fish & Begonia Short (2004)
Rating – ****
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