In the history of Chinese animation, there has never been a film like “Big Fish & Begonia.” Certainly, precedents exist in American and Japanese cartoons (at its core, the film could be a cross between Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”), but as far as the Chinese industry goes, this bold and breathtaking fantasy adventure stands alone.
Rendered to look like a traditional hand-drawn project, then thoroughly enhanced by CG touches and an immersive 3D presentation, “Big Fish & Begonia” commands awe on the strength of its imagery alone — a procession of enormous whales swim through the skies, a tentacled creature ferries a girl across a sea of clouds, feline porters walk on their hind legs — while weaving an epic tale that’s uniquely informed by local myths and motifs. If only it made the slightest bit of sense.
Best one can make of this stunning and frequently incomprehensible fable, “Big Fish & Begonia” tells of dolphin-girl Chun who sacrifices her immortality to rescue a human boy, traveling back and forth between the world of men and the mystical realm of “the Others,” which are connected by enormous whirlpools. That dynamic is further complicated by Chun’s childhood friend Qiu, who is willing to trade his own life for her benefit, resulting in an elaborate supernatural love triangle between human beings and those with magical powers (Chun can make plants grow through sheer force of concentration, bringing a seed to full bloom with a wave of her hand).
Frankly, it’s best not to get bogged down in plot, since co-writer-directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun’s jaw-dropping narrative is powered less by logic (not Western logic, at least) than a desire to hypnotize the audience — a risk that has been known to backfire, as it could just as easily lull them to sleep. Perhaps such a film is best experienced in a state of delirious semi-consciousness, in which its mind-bending imagery (reinforced by a mesmerizing score from composer Kiyoshi Yoshida) is free to wash over the imagination in strange and surreal ways.
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As it is, “Big Fish & Begonia” throws open the door to a parallel dimension loosely based on Daoist proverbs and descriptions found in China’s ancient “Classic of Mountains and Seas.” Early on, an elderly narrator attempts to explain a history of the world in which the souls of human beings are embodied as “great fish” … except when the humans misbehave and are somehow transformed into underworld rats. Life is relatively peaceful for the Others, who look forward to the day they are allowed to venture over into the human world, although they’re strictly advised not to interact with the humans — which is exactly what Chun does, of course, approaching a fishing boat in her new form, as a brilliant red dolphin.
Feeling some sort of connection with (or perhaps just a curiosity toward) this stranger, Chun follows him to shore, swimming in for a closer look. In doing so, she gets caught in a net, and the young fisherman must swim out to rescue her. The courageous human dies in the process, but his gesture inspires Chun to seek out various supernatural entities with whom she can bargain for his life. Weirdly, in the human world, Chun takes fish form, whereas in her native domain, she appears as a girl, while the dead man is reborn as a white fish with a single horn in the center of his forehead (technically, she’s a dolphin, while he’s a whale of some sort, but why quibble when it’s all make-believe anyway?).
Compared to the elegant, intuitive simplicity of last year’s “The Red Turtle,” “Big Fish & Begonia” feels like a complex calculus equation, and yet, one needn’t understand everything to appreciate the journey. The dead fisherman begins his strange afterlife no larger than a minnow, whom Chun renames “Kun” after the biggest fish in the sea. Her mission is to raise Kun until he’s big enough to return to the human realm, at which point she hopes to join him — but that’s more complicated than you might think in a world where the rules of nature and physics seem not to apply (fish that fly, people who walk on water, and everything in between).
And yet, one of the things that sets Liang and Zhang’s story apart from those told in American and Japan is the lack of an overtly evil villain. Here, natural circumstances — or else supernatural ones, such as two-headed snakes and giant vortexes that stretch into the heavens — pose the greatest threat, but instead of dwelling on the danger, “Big Fish & Begonia” celebrates the characters’ instinct to respond in selfless ways. Chun, Kun and Qiu are constantly offering their own lives in exchange for one another’s, and in doing so, defy the very notion of mortality. Theirs is an incredibly affirmational journey, one that unfolds like a waking dream en route to a state of transcendent bliss few films achieve. It could almost be the creation myth of some long-lost religion, which is fitting, considering the way it inspires belief in the previously untapped potential of Chinese animation.