Thursday, 2 August 2018

BIG FISH & BEGONIA (2018) - review

Twelve years in the making, Big Fish & Begonia has been heralded by some as part of the recent renaissance of in Chinese animation. Starting off a rough but sweet short film, directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun started up their own production company Biantian (Beijing) Media in order to make a feature length version, but money troubles and doubts as to whether a story this fantastical could be successful led to them ask for crowd funding through Weibo.

Inspired by traditional Chinese myths, the world of Big Fish & Begonia sees an enchanting world filled with "The Others", neither humans nor gods, who have dominion over various natural elements in the human world. Our sea is their sky, and every year a group of Others that are just coming of age get a chance to see their effect on the humanity by turning into red dolphins. Our protagonist Chun is amazed by the human world, but suffers from some of our brutalities when she is caught in a dredging net. However, a conscientious boy saves her, but is unfortunately drowned in his attempt. Distraught, Chun travels to a soul keeper to revive him, his soul living within that of a dolphin before he can go back, but has to give up half of her life to do so.

Making huge strides from its original 2004 flash animation, the revamped version has a distinct Japanese look, and the numerous fanciful elements can't help but compare it to the likes of Spirited Away, especially the fun stick insect smoking soul keeper and rat matron, the keeper of bad souls. Some detailed cgi is used to take advantage of 3D screenings, and unfortunately they stand out like a sore thumb. Despite this though, this technique is used very sparingly, but does make me wonder why they didn't just stick with the bright and fluid 2D style.

The story sets up a dreamy world, and the idea of humans returning to the ocean, and fish being primordial human soul's, really sets up a meaningful back bone to this film. The longer the film goes on though, the more things just kind of happen for inexplicable reasons. In parts, it almost felt like the world was too big and magnificent, and the lack of rules led to a lack of trepidation. There is no real sense in the film that things won't ultimately work out well.

The two protagonists in Chun and Qiu are a cute double act until they reach an unfortunate point a third of the way through that really left a sour taste in my mouth. Qiu is very much a scamp, getting into trouble (and even having an messy episode with the back side of a horse) and doing anything for his best friend Chun. Really though, it is his relationship with Chun that provides some convenient plot solutions and some really lamentable romance tropes, especially in relation to unrequited love and the unasked for sacrifices he makes in that pining.

This is a flawed movie. It looks great, and even the relentless use of red is admirable, but behind all the surreal imagery and cuteness is a lot of unanswered questions and unchallenged ideas. Big Fish & Begonia treads tentatively on any attempt for deeper meanings and emotional truths, but it's visual attractiveness and beguiling world will leave you transfixed while you visit it.



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