Big Fish & Begonia

Review by Michael Leader @michaeljleader

Directed by

Liang Xuan Zhang Chun

Starring

Guanlin Ji Shangqing Su Timmy Xu

Anticipation.

Could this be the future of Chinese animation?

Enjoyment.

A spectacular fantasy to rival its Japanese counterparts.

In Retrospect.

More a visual marvel than a true masterpiece, but hopefully this is just the start of something new.

This stunning animated fantasy from Chinese pair Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun rivals Studio Ghibli.

Rightly hailed as a major step forward for Chinese animation, Big Fish & Begonia is a film that crosses borders and breaks through boundaries. Unable to secure funding via traditional means, directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun turned to social media and crowdfunding to help turn their 2004 flash short (of the same name) into a full feature.

Once production was underway, the bulk of the animation work was handled by the Korean company Studio Mir, who worked on the Nickelodeon series Legend of Korra, and a melodic score was provided by Japanese composer Kiyoshi Yoshida. An international effort for a specifically Chinese animation inspired by Taoist texts, local legends and ancient mythology.

Deep under the sea, there’s a mystical realm populated with divine beings who send their young into the human world as part of a coming-of-age ritual. A girl named Chun crosses over in the form of a red dolphin, but an accident involving a young lad results in her being responsible for his death. Back home, she sets out to bend the rules of nature to bring the boy back to the land of the living, taking a midnight trip by narrow boat across a sea of clouds, to make a diabolical bargain to reclaim the boy’s soul.

In interviews, Liang and Zhang have cited Hayao Miyazaki as a key influence on their work, and it’s hard not to pick up on visual and narrative connections, conscious or not, that put Big Fish & Begonia in a similar aesthetic landscape to Studio Ghibli, from the magical underwater world (and interspecies kinship between fish and boy) that recalls Ponyo, to the great blue expanses of sea and sky, and similar accents of colour, to the recent Ghibli co-production The Red Turtle.

That these comparisons come so easily to mind confirms that the directors are onto something. Like Spirited Away, their fully-realised, magical world is rich with beguiling and unnerving detail, and their animation style utilises the form’s surreal capabilities to often sinister effect. At one point, a character picks a stick insect out of a pot, only to dutifully pluck off its legs, strike a light, and stoke the poor thing into a cigarette.

Such business is spectacularly rendered, but the film’s myriad characters, concepts and curious flourishes hang together loosely, like a dream – which is delightful in the moment, but something of a confounding slog once the second hour kicks in. You’re left puzzled, wondering why a character has just turned into a tree.

Big Fish & Begonia is released in the UK and Ireland on 18 April.

Published 17 Apr 2018

Tags: 2D Animation Animation Chinese Cinema

Anticipation.

Could this be the future of Chinese animation?

Enjoyment.

A spectacular fantasy to rival its Japanese counterparts.

In Retrospect.

More a visual marvel than a true masterpiece, but hopefully this is just the start of something new.

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