Film Review: ‘Big Fish & Begonia’

This marvelous and mind-blowing animated feature surpasses anything cartoon China has produced before in terms of sheer beauty, even as it defies interpretation.

Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1920885/

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Big Fish & Begonia'

Reviewed at Broadway Cineplex, Santa Monica, Nov. 4, 2016. (Also in Annecy Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (China — Animated) A Beijing Enlight Media release of a Beijing Enlight Pictures Co., Bi An Tian (Beijing) Culture Co., Horgos Colorrom Pictures Co. production. Producers: Jie Chen, Qiao Yi, Yunyun Wei.

Crew: Directors: Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun. Screenplay: Seth Be, Liang Xuan. Camera (color, widescreen). Editor: Yiran Tu. Music: Kiyoshi Yoshida.

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content