By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Big Fish & Begonia (大鱼海棠) is a beautifully animated film which takes its afterlife seriously. The people living in a mystical Chinese Middle Earth type realm live harmoniously with the elements but when an individual upsets the natural order, the world will retaliate and the cosmic order will need rebalancing.
This movie debuted in 2016 and it got limited play at select film festivals. After two years, it has finally gotten notice by Shout! Factory and FUNimation. Hopefully, another work, I Am Nezha (我是哪吒) will see release. While one is traditionally animated (2D), the other is 3D. Big Fish is a dramatic product whereas Nezha has more comedy action. To catch either work on the big screen is tough; the release from last month only had a handful of theatres doing short runs.
I feel this work’s similarities to The Red Turtle (2016) is coincidental. Despite the setting and plot being worlds apart but released in the same year, both deal with the relationships made between man and nature, if not with humanity encountering the supernatural. You either want to cry at the end or smile.
Thankfully, a video release is coming soon through Shout! Factory so I can view both works back to back for proper comparison. Those who decided to import the title instead can thrill to this colourful work at home. While not quite the same as the cinematic experience, this film has a feel of a Free Willy product.
Chun’s (Guanlin Ji) devotion to saving the soul of a young fisherman, a boy (in the body of a baby dolphin) is at the core of this work. In Western European terms, she is from a Faerie realm and she is a teen who does not know her place in society yet. Her coming of age story includes a rite of passage—to enter the mortal world and observe. She does so in the guise of a red dolphin.
However, in her oceanic adventures, she sees her kin (regular dolphins) get trapped in a net and while she tries to free them, she also gets caught too. She is freed, but it came at a cost. A life has to be exchanged for another’s. Perhaps that hero she has feelings for is not love, but rather some form of a Florence Nightingale complex. Since he saved her, she now has to save him.
In Chinese tradition, this boy will eventually reincarnate. Chun thinks she is doing him a favour by rushing his journey in the afterlife. He now takes the form of a baby dolphin, named Kun, and this 16-year old girl will have to take care of him, until his soul is ready to return. Along the way, she has to make bargains with other divine figures and fail to realize the other sacrifices Qui (Shangqing Su), a childhood friend, is willing to make for her happiness.
This story is impressive enough to be like Spirited Away, but it takes on a different angle. Instead of an adventure ala Alice in Wonderland, this work is more like A Chinese Ghost Story (小倩, 1997), the animated version, with a touch of Cinderella and Faust mixed in. The fact this animation is dealing with an obvious love triangle instead of a fantastical adventure does not lessen the elements of folklore mixed in. When considering Chinese culture is steeped in Buddhism, Animism and Confucianism, to tell which belief system is examined can be tough. A guide is almost needed to explain who some of these Rat Queens, Living Stone Statues (Trolls, in European tradition) and Ferry Men to spirit travellers away are.
To say there’s plenty of fish for her to find is a bad joke. The lesson she needs to learn is that of who is willing to make sacrifices to earn her respect. This work does aim for a Hans Christian Andersen like ending even though I highly doubt the outcome is the life Qiu truly wants.
When considering she’s narrating this tale, the introduction offers an elderly voice to let viewers know it is a story about her looking back. If a sequel is in the works, I hope it will be different enough from the work by Studio Ghibli / Wild Bunch to make it different.
3 Fishes out of 5