An Obscure Indie Darling
This still relatively obscure indie darling hit the Chinese Animation markets back in July 2016 to much acclaim – and though this film drew a small cult following over the years, it was not until earlier of April 2018 did we see an American release, picked up by both Funimation Films and Shout Studios. Big Fish and Begonia is co-directed by Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang and animated by B&T Studio collaborating with Studio Mir (the studio responsible for The Legend of Korra). The influence of Japanese animation and Miyazaki is palpable and practically leaps off the frame and whether it may be an homage to the infamous director or not, one thing remains true, this is a great step in the future direction for Chinese animation.
The Impressions of Chinese Animation prior
Back in 2009, chinese television animation program Xin Ling Zhi Chuang (Spirit’s Window) was accused of copying several backgrounds with minor modifications from 5 Centimeters Per Second – Makoto Shinkai’s film that jumped into popularity and brought him forth as the new “Miyazaki” of our generation, to those who are unfamiliar with him. The comparisons between the two films were made quite noticeable through a number of compiled screenshots, though official investigators ultimately concluding that what happened was due to an insufficient final check on a subcontracting studio. Xin Ling Zhi Chuang went on to receive the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region’s highest art and literature award in 2011, causing a big stir among Chinese netizens.
Why I bring this up? At least, in the mind of the collective public, original animated movies from China were scarce, far and few in between. Most of them were made as comedy films and only in recent years had it the same reverence that 2D animated films have in Japan and even South Korea as East Asian counterparts.
A Shift In Dynamics
With cross-cultural influences, this began an interesting shift in dynamics. The aforementioned case of Xin Ling Zhi Chuang made it clear that despite some of the obvious similarities in the sequencing of Shinkai’s work, past Chinese films were more interested in emulating the visual style rather than make something of truly their own. To put into perspective, before Big Fish and Begonia, there was no other large Chinese epic-fantasy animated “Ghibli-esq” film that stood out from it’s contemporaries or attempted something of this magnitude narratively/visually. The largest to come was also “Monkey King” in 2015, and that too was in 3D. 2D Chinese animation only truly begun to take a form of its own in recent years, and now with this film, the ideation has come to fruition.
Big Fish and Begonia
Big Fish and Begonia is a visually stunning film that takes all the learnings from it’s predecessors of animation and the Ghibli giants themselves, to put forth a film that is both mythological, cultural and layered with ecological and emotional undertones. Though the inspirations draw close to Ghlibi, this is where the fork in the road occurs. Instead of emulating other films that came before it, Big Fish and Begonia, draws innovation from the Chinese’s own cultural heritages, which speaks also plenty about the tonality of the film. Of note, it draws quite a bit from the Chinese Myth of K’un, a story about a giant fish that turns into a bird in the sky.
In the northern darkness there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven. – The Myth of K’un
The film itself stars 16 year old Chun, from a land that resides under the sea of the human world – where their skies and our seas meet. She and the other residents of this world, coincidentally known as “The Others“, live day to day lives here. This other dimension of sorts, controls the seasons and tides on the human world and is where the souls of humans go after they pass, turning into either dolphins or rats respectively depending if they were either good or bad in life. Not too much is know about them other than the fact that they are neither Gods nor spirits, but have magical abilities both mystical and with an affinity to nature and the unknown.
Upon her coming of age ceremony, Chun turns into a giant red dolphin and takes off into the world above for 7 days, travelling the human seas where she meets an unnamed young boy. During a terrible storm, she gets caught in a fishing net, having to be promptly saved by this person, and without giving too much away, this is where the story begins.
A Review Rundown
As highlighted earlier, the visual undertakings in this film is no less than breathtaking as I find myself drawn in with many frames of open lands, seas and skies. They really take advantage of large open spaces, reflections of clouds in the seas and night skies. You really get a sense of how colourful this world can be, in almost an “anything can happen” sort of vibe. The world around them are able to move and contort in many ways, giving additional breadth to the mysticality of Big Fish & Begonia. It becomes a huge take away point in the film, a dreamy sort of hallucinatory state, with the music coming in a close second.
That being said, the pacing of this film is rife with irregularities and the character motivations become muddled after a while with inconsistent plot drives between each section, that while convoluted, is bearable to only a degree. The characters which I’ve come to have a soft spot for after a couple of viewings, also require you to digest this film while sort of believing in the logic of its own world. The animation syncing for the mouths and original Mandarin dubbing seems off many times and though I’m not sure what was the reason for this, it does become noticeable. The movie at many points feels unsure about where to split itself between emotional moments and driving the plot forward, which ironically in a film where the visual landscape suggest that it’s open to “anything happening”, so can the plot.
Also not to get too heavy into spoiler territory, but to emphasize on the confusion this plot brings. At one point, the heavens are angry for reasons I am not entirely sure, where the Water Dragon Spirit is then summoned to help K’un return home, the old woman who was once cursed to never touch the sunlight springs forth, stealing the human Dolphin-ocarina (which is my best description of it), to then pass through the water gates to the human world, not before turning into a young woman to do so. She is never seen or spoken of again.
Don’t worry, this would make more sense in context of the film. This is just an example of disjointed plot threads and for some, it may be a deal breaker. It feels like it’s trying too hard to cram many “iconic moments” in, to make the film as “emotionally impactful” as possible, but tunnel visions at the core. Leaving us, the viewer with a constant hap-hazard gaze of what is going on.
What does this mean for the future?
Still, despite some of my gripes with the film, as a whole it is still a must see visual experience for any animation lover. It’s trying, and for what it is, you really get a sense of them testing the waters for themselves, for how they could push the epic-fantasy genre in their field. For the future of Chinese animation, this is still a commendable foothold. With perhaps more studios partaking in this burgeoning shift for the industry – to shape it’s own trademark, influences and historical presence in the scene. For one? It is a fantastic start and I am looking forward to more.