Mark Reviews Movies

Big Fish & Begonia


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang

Cast: The voices of Guanlin Ji, Shangqing Su, Timmy Xu, Shulan Pan, Yuanyuan Xang, Jiu-er, Lifang Xue, Jie Zhang, Xiaoyu Liu, Zhongyang Baomu, Yu Cheng

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 4/6/18 (limited); 4/11/18 (wider); 4/18/18 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2018

Even in a magical world beyond human comprehension, there is no escape from pain, misery, and conflict. That's not the main lesson of Big Fish & Begonia, an animated fantasy from China, but it is a key to the narrative. The story itself is a fairly uncomplicated one about love and sacrifice, although its foundation is rooted in complex myths and legends about a secret world of magic that exists somewhere between our mortal coil and some, other unseen realm of the eternal.

There's a lot to take in here, and it's difficult to tell whether directors Xuan Liang (who also wrote the screenplay) and Chun Zhang skipped a few pieces of vital information about this world or simply took a more straightforward path in their storytelling, which makes it seem as if the film hasn't taken full advantage of the world's potential. Whatever the case may be, we can mostly forgive the film's stumbles in communicating the full extent of this realm. It's a genuinely gorgeous, oftentimes breathtaking vision of a place that's somehow both grounded within our understanding of the natural world and fantastical in the way this place bends the laws of nature.

The place doesn't even have a name. Why should it? It's essentially an in-between realm, with the natural world on one side and eternity on the other. Here, the population looks mostly human, although there are some notable exception. Some of the beings here have the bodies of humans but the faces of masks. Some have red skin and horns, giving them an almost demonic look. All of them are capable of performing magic, although some are more powerful than others. That magic seems based on the old understanding of the physical elements. Our young heroine can create plants by simply extending her hands. One man can conjure fire, and his hair is a constantly upright and moving tangle of red, which curls like a flame.

They aren't gods, because gods, as far as they believe, exist in another place or move and act within the natural world and this in-between place. Chun (voice of Guanlin Ji) isn't certain if the gods actually exist. She has never seen one, but her friend Qiu (voice of Shangqing Su) wisely points out that humans have never actually seen their kind. Even so, they still exist.

Chun, like all 16-year-olds in this place, is given the opportunity to visit the human world for a week. The visitors disguise themselves as red dolphins and travel to the natural world via a spinning maelstrom that forms within the great courtyard of the realm's central palace. While there, the dolphin-formed Chun spots a young man (voice of Timmy Xu) and his kid sister. After seeing the beauty and the horrors of the human's world, Chun attempts to return to her own realm through the great whirlpool but finds herself trapped in some fishing net. The young man rescues her but dies in the process.

A guilt-ridden Chun returns to her world and seeks a way to resurrect the dead human who saved her life. The secret lies in the origin of human life—their souls brought into the world by way of giant fish that existed when the planet was only water. The realm's soul-keeper, a one-eyed spirit who keeps cats and manages the souls of good humans who have died, offers her a chance: If she can protect the young man's soul until it grows into a big fish, the boy can return to the natural world. The catch is that Chun will lose half of her life.

This is the extent of the story, really, with the rising conflict involving a massive change to the climate of the in-between realm, leading the population to try to get rid of Chun's fish, which she names Kun. Chun tries to keep Kun safe, while moving him as he grows.

It's mostly an excuse for Liang and Zhang to tour the various places within the in-between world. The film provides an abundance of imaginative sights, from grand chamber of fishy souls to an underground cavern where another soul-keeper controls the spirits of bad humans, who are transformed into mice. Most of the realm, though, looks like its natural counterpart—the great palaces, the expansive landscapes, the frozen-over waters of a garden and a river.

The changes are in how these magical beings interact with the world. Kun is capable of swimming through raindrops, giving the fish the appearance of flying. Chun can conjure a tree to burst through the ground above the underworld, and Qiu and his fellow water-summoners can create that vortex of water that serves as a gate between their world and the land of human beings.

The animation here is colorful and crisp, a blend of traditional hand-drawn artistry, which looks almost rotoscoped in its smoothness of motion, and computer-generated work, allowing for the camera to move around the expanse of the palace or the maelstrom. Earlier scenes feature whales flying through the clouds and into the sea, which becomes intertwined with the reflection of the sky in the water, and the climax is impressive action sequence, featuring the realm's inhabitants using their assorted magical powers to escape a giant tidal wave.

The film doesn't offer much in the way of its characters, and at times, the rules and history of this place seem to have been forged for the purposes of the plot. Then again, in the big scheme of things, this hardly matters. Big Fish & Begonia is, at times, an achingly beautiful work of animation. It's a clear labor of love on the part of filmmakers, who dare to show us stunning things. If that's the only reason, so be it.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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