‘Big Fish & Begonia’ review: Dirs. Xuan Liang, Chun Zhang (2018)

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Big Fish and Begonia review: China’s new animated feature revolves around a 16-year-old girl who travels to the human world in the form of a dolphin and forms a connection with a human boy.

Big Fish and Begonia review by Orestes Adam.

Big Fish and Begonia review

Unlike Japan’s world-dominating animation industry, China is significantly lacking in the toon department. The fact that a film as rich as Big Fish & Begonia had to be delayed for over 12 years, only to be crowdfunded and make over half a billion Yuan in China upon its release shows how desperately its audience is in need of its own animated fables, particularly with such fantastical mythologies and philosophies to draw from. The dawn of China’s animation industry additionally presents a unique opportunity, as it stands free from the fixed style that is Japanese anime and the safety of Western cartoons. It is unfortunate then that so many will inevitably liken Big Fish & Begonia to a lesser Hayao Miyazaki work because, while it certainly possesses the same magic and ecological sensitivity of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, it wears a number of diverse inspirations on its sleeve, from Life of Pi to The Boy and the Beast to The Legend of Korra, all of which are channeled through the lens of ancient Chinese mythology to culminate in a chimeric work that one would be right to compare to its influences, but wrong to define against.

Related: The Red Turtle review

Big Fish & Begonia follows Chun, a sort of demigod who lives in a mystical society beneath the human world, on a coming-of-age ritual in which she must explore the human world in the form of a red dolphin. Before she returns home she is caught in a poacher’s net and freed by a boy who drowns in the process. Consumed by guilt, the film’s journey involves Chun reincarnating the boy as a fish and taking care of him in the mystical realm until he grows large enough to return home. It sounds senseless and it absolutely is, as if directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun are confident of the fact that the unexplained will always be worthy of more fascination than that which is made sense of. The film features a strong blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI that, while sometimes appears a bit jarring, never fails to enrapture the eyes of its audience. Even when the plotline and character drama fall apart it is the setting of Big Fish & Begonia that makes this story worth stepping into. In the mystical realm that we spend a large majority of the time in the relationship between its people and nature is beautifully emphasized by the style of animation and the vague metaphysical laws that govern it. An overly long beard transitions into a river; cats transform into furniture; flowerpots have faces, and giant fish can fly in the rain. There are even a number of Flinstones-like gags ridden throughout their society, such as a rat spinning a record or insects having their limbs torn off to be smoked like cigarettes; the film is at its absolute best when it delights through the oddities of its detail, forcing us to ponder what exactly a particular mystical being could represent and what is conveyed through the visuals alone.

While it doesn’t entirely fail, the characterization and drama of Big Fish & Begonia never matches the awe-inspiring levels of visual splendor in each frame. If there was ever a penny saved throughout the making of this film, it is clear that it was saved in the animation of the characters. Characters hardly move any more than they need to, with certain motions appearing to even skip a few frames between stances for an effect not nearly as fluid as the motion of their surroundings, relying on the beauty of their backdrop to maintain an effective image. This is reflected in the development of the characters as well, as we hardly know anything about them prior to the onset of their journey. The drama itself, particularly in the case of Qiu, Chun’s best friend, does reach a satisfying conclusion as its penultimate scene attempts to convey the characters’ emotions through their body language, but its unfortunate that it takes as long as it does for an audience to stop staring at the film’s spellbinding images and focus our attention to the drama at hand.

Big Fish & Begonia does not hold up to the plethora of animated classics that the 21st century has been spoiled with, but it does what animation does best: builds a beautiful world that one’s mind can get lost in. In spite of its uneven characters and the weaknesses of its plot, there is hardly a single frame in which there isn’t something beautiful, quirky, or delightfully strange to hold your attention and if anything, will leave you greatly excited for the animation to come from China in the future.

Big Fish and Begonia review by Orestes Adam.

Big Fish and Begonia is release on Wednesday 18th April 2018.

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