ZOETROPE BIG FISH & BEGONIA
Explore a fantasy world as beings from that world explore our own. The hopes of a nation rest upon Bigfish&begonia demonstrating that China has animation chops, but can this film deliver?
Its sky lies just beneath the bottom of the ocean of our human world. The people there, who are not unlike us, know the magic that governs the natural rhythms of Earth. This is the setting of the animated arthouse film Big Fish & Begonia, directed by Liang Xuan (梁旋) and Zhang Chun (张春). China’s starved realm of quality animated cinema has been salivating for a homegrown animated hit for a long time, so the film generated a decent buzz long before its first screening.
The market for animated films in China has been long dominated by Hollywood giants Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. For Chinese audiences, there seems to be a void in the canon that can only be filled with animated works that speak to the audience in their own language— not the arbitrary potpourri of kung fu, red lanterns, and cousins named Dim and Sum found in works like the Kung Fu Panda trilogy and Mulan.
Expectations have been building for some time, so naturally, polarized reviews of Big Fish & Begonia are to be expected.
The film is the story of Chun, who, like her mother before her, is a goddess of the world of Begonia. As part of a coming-of-age ceremony, the 16-year-olds of her world are sent to the human world for seven days, disguised as red dolphins. On the seventh day (spoilers ahead) they must return, but Chun is trapped in a fishing net. After being saved by
a human boy at the cost of his own life, Chun is determined to repay her debt, goes to the witch who guards all human souls, and trades the boy’s life for half of her own—an endeavor that soon brings disaster to her world. The film seems to be based on concepts of Buddhist karma, reincarnation, and the carefree Daoist spirit.
In comparison to its ambitious world-building, the film’s plot and setting feel cursory and flat.
Chun isn’t exactly easy to like. She is fragile, obstinate, and dismissive of the witch’s admonition that karma debts can never be cleared. However, “As long as you are kind in heart, right and wrong is someone else’s judgment”, says Chun’s grandfather, the lord of all herbs and a symbol of ultimate wisdom. Ambiguity and confusion is probably the last message an animated film should leave for children; for adults, they can use this pretext to bash the film for not living up to expectations.
The volume of archival research behind the film is evident. Almost every character has a fascinating origin grounded in ancient Chinese legends and mythical texts like the Classic of Mountains and Seas and In Search of the Supernaturals. It also borrows from the Daoist classic, Zhuangzi: “In the northern ocean there is a fish, called the Kun, many thousand li in size.” In return, Kun is the name of the big fish that plays a key role in the film. These materials, rich in cultural allusions and metaphorical imagination, give Big Fish & Begonia a brilliant form to flesh out, and it should have acted as more than an audience magnet or hollow attempt at intellectualizing.
Perhaps when the audience is expecting a savior of the Chinese animation film industry, a work that genuinely grows from “Chinese culture” and speaking in the authentic “Chinese language”, they should first collectively pin down the definition of abstractions like culture and language. Collages of mythical legends and classical texts that are not truly internalized in a body of work are in essence the same acts of appropriation as the Disneyfied China. It’s hard to put decades of anticipation and thousands of years of history into an animated film—or any film for that matter.
Half of her life for the soul of a human boy
In the film, Chun trades