The medium of animation can provide a fascinating window into the world of myth and legend. Without the crippling limitations of live action storytelling, hand-drawn imagery knows virtually no boundaries, unlocking the path to the mystical realm in all its spectacular intricacies. Steeped in Chinese literature and folklore, Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang’s Big Fish & Begonia brilliantly utilizes its elaborate medium to craft a story with no shortage of spiritual and emotional resonance.
“Each of its characters are woven into a sacred tapestry of objective goodness, all bound by a singular, common purpose…”
Caught somewhere between The Little Mermaid and Spirited Away, our tale follows Chun (Guanlin Ji), a teenage girl from the spirit realm who longs to explore the elusive human world. In order to do so, she must take part in a coming-of-age ritual wherein she is transformed into a red dolphin, so she can observe the complexities of earthly existence from afar. Once in the land of mortals, Chun becomes infatuated with a handsome, young fisherman (Timmy Xu). However, when she disrupts the natural order of things, she must undergo a metaphysical quest to restore the balance.
Keeping with the breathtaking animation techniques often associated with the Far East (Liang and Zhang certainly owe a debt to the groundwork laid by the films of Studio Ghibli), Big Fish & Begonia is nothing short of a delight for the senses. Vivid, colorful landscapes blend sky and sea, as the film continues to shift and redefine its own orientation. Anthropomorphized creatures and imaginative set pieces further enhance our venture into the immersive fable sphere. Even if the story’s otherworldly premise might strike American viewers as somewhat alien, the dazzling imagery (coupled with the celestial score from renowned composer Kiyoshi Yoshida) is enough to chip away the cultural barrier.
“…the film’s sense of awe will ring true with viewers of all backgrounds.”
Although it rarely goes out of its way to explain the mechanics of its elaborate dogma, the film offers up renderings of an interconnected world. Each of its characters are woven into a sacred tapestry of objective goodness, all bound by a singular, common purpose. Chun and company are tied to a shared past, as well as a shared future, and, as such, they must accept the inevitability of fate, even as they pave their own route through its rough terrain. Liang and Zhang are tapping into a rich history of proverbial wisdom, all while excluding any true antagonist from their parable. The only conflict placed upon the characters comes as a direct result of their own actions.
Big Fish & Begonia may, at times, be at odds with unsuspecting Western sensibilities, particularly with its saturated plot and ecological agenda. Still, even if the packaging isn’t what audiences on this side of the globe are used to examining, the film’s sense of awe will ring true with viewers of all backgrounds. We are treated to a clever peek behind a seemingly impenetrable wall in order to probe the abundantly human core of this twisted fairy tale. It strikes an impressive emotional chord, and it’s difficult not to become enrapt in Chun’s Daoist journey.
Big Fish & Begonia (2018) Directed by Xuan Liang, Chun Zhang. Written by Xuan Liang, Chun Zhang. Starring: Ji Guanlin, Su Shangqing, Xu Weizhou, Jing Shih-chieh, Yang Ting, Pan Shulan.
8 out of 10