Big Fish & Begonia (2016)
This fantastical tale is about Chun, a girl who is a member of a tribe of mythical beings (“neither humans nor gods, but others”) living underwater, capable of controlling tides and knowing the secrets of nature. As part of her rite of passage, Chun turns into a dolphin to visit the human world. There, Chun makes a contact with a boy who loses his life “because of her”, and Chun vows to sacrifice a part of her life for him, seeking help to turn the boy into a fish which must grow big enough for his later transformation. The story sounds a bit complex; it requires certain open-mindedness; and the layering is quite deep. However, with the stunning visuals (better seen on the widest possible screen), the simplicity of the main theme is quite evident and heart-warming. The meticulously-constructed scenery, and the relatable themes of the cycle of life, and the importance of friendship and of not losing hope, all make this animation more than worth your time. Moreover, “Big Fish & Begonia” has already done extremely well at the Chinese box office, and, being a huge leap forward for the Chinese animation industry, it may be a contender in the next Oscar season.
“Big Fish & Begonia” has been widely compared to the films of Hayao Miyazaki, but the comparison here does little justice to the movie. There are strong influences of Miyazaki felt without any doubt, but there is also this thread in the animation which feels independent. In that way, “Big Fish & Begonia” allegedly relies on Chinese texts, such as Zhuangzi, with its theme of accepting death as natural and seeking wonders, and it also encompasses some Chinese underwater myths. The allegorical connotations are often felt and perplex, but they also provide the film with the distinct imaginative quality which is in the league of its own. Also, in the age of the cinematic dominance of “The Shape of Water” (2017) and its alleged unoriginality, we can hardly blame “Big Fish and Begonia” for reminding us in plot of “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Spirited Away” (2001), “Ponyo” (2009) or even of “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” (1992) (because of its characters’ love triangle).
“Big Fish & Begonia” is just bursting with imagination and fantastical landscapes (those images of wintery or summery sunsets are works of pure beauty). We are introduced to the whole new realm (with the sky slowly transitioning into the ocean and vice-versa) with sometimes cryptic and symbolic statements by way of safe-journey wishes. “Every human being is a giant fish in the sea, and human life is akin to swimming across the sea”, says a wise elder in the movie. Thus, underneath the breathtaking visuals, many serious themes run through “Big Fish and Begonia”. The topic of self-sacrifice is omnipresent, and the film also more than touches on the issues of inter-connectivity of things in the world, (alchemical) transformation, and the harmony of nature and reconciliation being the end goals desired. The story may not always be sending the right messages, but the questions it does raise are deep and thought-provoking. Without happiness, what is the meaning in one’s longevity? – enquires one character. There is a balance between playfulness and seriousness in this animation, but it never does not quite let go of its philosophical foundations. “Big Fish & Begonia” even has one scene which strangely reminds you of the game of chess with Death scene from “The Seventh Seal” (1957).
Many Asian or Asia-influenced animations are criticised for emphasising nature over individual character development, but, aside from the fact that such animations simply reflect the unique cultural stance (the power and immensity of natural forces over individual lives – see “The Red Turtle” (2016)), “Big Fish and Begonia” could hardly be criticised for its emphasis on nature over characters. Its characters are developed in a way we do come to know each character’s intricate psychology and behaviours. Chun, our prime heroine, is definitely portrayed as curious, loyal and a devoted friend. Qiu (Chun’s dear male friend from her natural realm) is also fiercely loyal and protective, showing off his sense of humour once in awhile. The point of the story is to show the importance of the relationship between the characters, their relationship with their own people, and, in turn, people or rather beings’ relationship with nature.
There are no real villains in “Big Fish and Begonia” in a more-western-animation sense of this word (as in Myazaski anime), but, rather, the forces of nature (including mortality) are presented as the main adversaries or obstacles facing Kun, Chun and Qiu. However, this is compensated by the fact that there are certain unforgettable and full of character personages in the animation which display both evil and good intentions interchangeably, making the audience question their true motives in helping the heroes. Such vivid characters are the witty one-eyed soul-keeper and the wicked female rat matron (the characters oddly recalling some creatures akin to those in del Toro’s world).
On the other hand, a weighty criticism which can be directed at the animation is that it does lack certain coherence which is very important if it attempts to tell its “hero’s journey” story. This is compounded by the fact that, sometimes, it is difficult to keep track in the story on who promised what and to whom, and in exchange of what. Also, there are maybe too many “miraculous escapes” present in this animation, even by the standards of an animation or a story based on rescue attempts. When some near-death escapes happen every fifteen minutes or so (towards the animation’s end), the audience may even go almost indifferent as to the fates of characters (not that it quite happens so in “Big Fish & Begonia”).
The verdict is that you will either be totally drawn into this bizarre and vivid world which is “Big Fish & Begonia” or refuse to be taken by it and seek logic everywhere. The best advice, when attempting to watch this animation, is “to go with the flow”, immersing oneself in the unearthly visions presented, and simply feel the story’s warmth and its intention to completely submerge its viewers in an almost spiritual journey. 9/10