ZOETROPE BIG FISH & BEGONIA

《大鱼海棠》

The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - - LI YANTING (李妍婷)

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

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