Big Fish and Begonia (2017) *****

April 12th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Directors: Xuan Liang, Chung Zhang | Chinese Anime | Mandarin | 106′

A delicately drawn and ravishingly beautiful Chinese anime enveloped in the same social concerns and passion for folklore as Studio Ghibli and drawing comparison with Spirited Away. The shape-shifting fantasy tells a tender rites of passage tale of love and yearning between the spiritual and animal kingdom. With good triumphing over evil, Big Fish & Begonia is a fable with weighty themes that will enchant and absorb adults, but with a cute and lovable story for younger audiences with its subtle blend of 2D and CG animation, superbly rendered in a rainbow palette of hand-drawn images.

Epic in its thematic richness, Xuan Liang and Chung Zhang’s indie project is very much a labour of love that gradually came together over a period of 12 years due to financing constrictions . This version is in Mandarin with English subtitles gives a more atmospheric feel to the piece and follows the aged narrator as she looks back wistfully at her teenage years, and the time when she as Chun (Guanlin Ji) was forced to leave her spiritual home and return for a week long ‘rite of passage’ back to the real world where she takes the form of a dolphin. Shortly arriving beaming up to this surprisingly beautiful human kingdom she gets trapped in fishermen’s nets and is rescued by a soulful human man called Kun (Xu Weizhou) who tragically perishes during the ordeal leaving Chun moved to repay him for his sacrifice and bravery by seeking the help of the spirit world, and leaving a MacGuffin in the shape of a small mouth organ.

What follows is both touching and mesmerising: Chun is given the chance to forfeit part of her own life and she diligently searches for her saviour in a magical repository for human spirits, guarded by a one-eyed mahjong-playing old hag, who rules the territory and bristles with wickedness. Chun’s spiritual connection with Kun (who takes the form of an adorable baby dolphin) drives the narrative forward – the two’s souls are intertwined in a love match that very much captures the words of Noel Coward and could serve as an alternative retro title: “Time and Tide can never sever Those whom love has bound together”. And this is the bond that keeps the pair united throughout all their endless trials and tribulations. Themes of fate and destiny come into play again and again, and the mesmerising storyline delivers a powerful message: that mortals must make sacrifices on a spiritual level if they want to change the course of destiny.

Meanwhile, Chun has an admirer in the real world (Shangqing Su), a young man who travels with her for her week’s trial, and stays by her side, hoping for his love to be reciprocated by his acts of derring-do and sacrifice: he wrestles a two-headed snake and dives into a disgusting cesspit – but Chun regards him as a brother figure, her heart is already taken by Kun, and she is totally absorbed in her selfless efforts to get him back into her human world.

Xuan Liang and Chung Zhang have together created a fabulous fantasy fable based on Chinese Daoist culture and folklore, complete with traditional temples and furniture inspired by the Southern Chinese traditional design and architecture (although it’s filmed in Beijing and much of the settings also echo this region). Chun even wears earrings made of jade. Water is once again the symbol of emotion, re-birth and creation and forms a nurturing and flexible conduit between the real and spiritual world we inhabit. This is an awe-inspiring and adorable anime, the final scene leaves us with a message of hope: in a tribute to both the strength and the everlasting tenderness at the heart of true love. MT




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