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Hello everyone, and a very belated welcome to February! I’m not dead and Howl is still underway, but for now I thought I’d put up a First Thoughts review, since a busy weekend means it’s unlikely I’ll get the main film review up before the week is out.
We’re taking a look at something called Big Fish & Begonia, a rare piece of Chinese feature animation that was written, produced and directed by the duo of Ling Xuan and Zhang Chun, with music provided by Kiyoshi Yoshida. This marks the debut feature of B&T Studio in collaboration with Studio Mir, and it was a joint investment by B&T and Enlight Media. In North America, Shout! Studios acquired the distribution rights and put it in a few theatres in 2018 with the help of Funimation, while Manga Entertainment released it in the UK and Ireland the same year.
The original Mandarin cast featured the likes of Ji Guanlin, Pan Shulan, Su Shangqing, Timmy Xu, Chin Shih-chieh, Yuanyuan Zhang and Jie Zhang, among others, while the English dub had the talents of Stephanie Sheh, Elizabeth Sung (RIP), Johnny Young Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JD Blanc and Cindy Robinson.
Development on the project began as far back as 2005, but by 2009 it had stalled due to lack of funds. Only when director Liang started a fundraising campaign online in 2013 did things get back underway, with the finished film finally surfacing in 2016. The complicated story was inspired by various sources, such as a myth from the ancient Chinese Taoist text Zhuangzi and many other classic tales like the Classic of Mountains and Seas and In Search of the Supernatural, so it’s fair to say I wasn’t familiar with the source material going into this. Actually, I’d never heard of this film at all before stumbling across it in an On Demand film selection (yes, I’m the last millennial not to be using a streaming service… yet) and I was intrigued – how often do you find Chinese animation amidst the sea of Japanese anime? Being such an animation fan, I had to give it a go.
The story concerns a young girl named Chun, who comes from a fantastical realm below the human world where citizens face a coming-of-age trial once they turn sixteen. This trial involves spending a week in the human world above, disguised as a red dolphin, during which they must make sure not to interact with the people there. Chun’s trip goes smoothly until her last night, when she becomes entangled in a fishing net while trying to reach the portal back to her world; a kindly young man rescues her but is accidentally killed himself in the process, leaving Chun wracked with guilt. She goes to the keeper of souls and makes a bargain to save the boy’s life, but this will cause far more trouble than she could have ever suspected as the very elements of nature are thrown out of whack. Somehow, she must keep him safe long enough to get him back to his own world, but with so many against her, Chun is tested to her very limits and must make some enormous sacrifices for her new friend before the story is over.
Right off the bat, what struck me about Big Fish & Begonia was how beautiful it is. The flying whales in the skies gave me strong Fantasia 2000 vibes, while the character designs bore a strong resemblance to those of the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender (a show I’m hoping to explore in more depth later on). I have to say that the film’s biggest strength is its often-breathtaking scenery, which is honestly reminiscent of Ghibli in the best moments, although a few scenes are hampered by some conspicuous CG that isn’t well integrated with the hand-drawn work.
The action is fairly well-paced even if the content of individual scenes is sometimes not fully explained, and the leads, Chun and her friend Qiu, have strong chemistry. Actually, Qiu’s unrequited love for Chun and the lengths he goes to in order to help her are some of the film’s most powerfully handled emotional beats; there’s a real pathos to this character that had me more invested in his plight than Chun’s, and I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have made a more interesting protagonist than the object of his affections. Still, I did enjoy Chun’s foray into the human world and the connection she forges with Kun (her name for the human boy she meets there). She’s at her most interesting as a dolphin, but in her humanlike form she can feel rather dull and disconnected at times, particularly around her parents.
There are plenty of highlights amongst the film’s colourful supporting cast, some of whom damn near stole the show from the leads at times. Chun’s protective mother, Feng, is a curious standout, as she is seemingly far more invested in Chun than Chun is in her, really upping the emotional stakes in several moments and leaving you wondering about her past. Her calmer and more apathetic husband contrasts sharply with her, and it is she who seems to experience the most grief when Chun is threatened. I would have loved to see more of the parents. The roguishly sarcastic guardian of souls, Lingpo, is also a delight, with the mahjong scene he shares with Qiu being one of my favourites, not to mention the mischievous flirt Shu Pozi, the “rat matron”, who also gets a great comic scene with Qiu (to be honest, most of the film’s best scenes involve him).
However, while I did enjoy the characters overall, it felt like there were too many being introduced to keep track of, let alone to develop them properly. Many of Chun’s neighbours get little screen time despite their inventive character designs, so it can be tough to follow who has which powers and what status in the climactic scenes. Chun’s relationship with Kun is also rather one-sided, although admittedly as a dolphin his range of communication is limited – it just left me feeling all the sorrier for poor Qiu, since he and Chun seemed to share more genuine chemistry.
Complicated but evocative, the film’s story is one of its most intriguing yet frustrating aspects, swinging from simplistic fairy tale to convoluted mishmash of mythology, and I know there are a lot of cultural references woven in that are utterly lost on me. At least the central theme of man’s relationship to nature is understandable and familiar, with the story showing us once again the mess humans tend to make when they tamper with nature. Kun’s rescue of Chun does far more damage than either of them could have expected, but his good intentions do lend the film a more optimistic tone than many other doom-mongering efforts from elsewhere and balance is restored in the end, albeit with great sacrifice. Underlining this environmental angle is a more cliched theme about the “power of love,” but I have to give the filmmakers credit for handling this with enough skill to keep it feeling sincere rather than hokey.
If you’re not Chinese, chances are you probably haven’t seen this one yet, but I would recommend checking it out if you can find it. The storytelling might not be of Disney or Pixar standard, but for me, the lovely animation more than made up for that; as ever, I’m not trying to bash computer animation, but it’s always a treat to see such expressive and detailed hand-drawn work like this make it to the big screen. Big Fish & Begonia holds plenty of artistic value for my fellow animation lovers out there, so please do give it a chance – it offers a glimpse of a world worth seeing, and I think it’s important to show support for Chinese animation so that more features like this can be made and distributed in the future.
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the review. Now, for those waiting for Howl, it is progressing at last, and while I try never to promise dates, I think next week may finally be the week. To think, there was a time when I was daft enough to think it would go up in December! I’m aware that there hasn’t been a film review since Christmas Day and I’m furious with myself for letting that happen, but I’m finally getting on top of things again. We will be moving on to The Red Turtle soon, I swear. By the way, have any of you read Tim Urban’s excellent post on procrastination over at Waitbutwhy? It’s a cracking read and, incidentally, a slightly less guilty form of procrastination itself! Anyway, until next time, take care and staaay animated!
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50222231 – credit for poster
https://actuallypaid.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/china-dives-head-first-into-a-sea-of-animated-wonders-big-fish-begonia/ – another WordPress review from a fellow blogger
https://www.indiewire.com/2018/04/big-fish-and-begonia-review-chinese-animation-1201949824/ – Indiewire’s review
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Fish_%26_Begonia – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1920885/ – IMDB profile and credit for images