Big Fish And Begonia

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Big Fish And Begonia
"Once past the strangeness of the narrative, Big Fish And Begonia is beautiful, lyrical in every sense."

Big Fish And Begonia is the sort of film that leaves me wanting to know more . So much more.

It is the story of the love of a supernatural girl for a big fish. Or rather, it is about “the others”, magical beings, not quite Gods, yet more than human who, at a certain age, must undergo a rite of passage. This involves a visit to the world of humans, disguised as dolphins, to observe, to learn but no more. Look, but do not touch is the stern edict before they part - and on no account interact with humans.

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But young girl, Chun, does all of these and, when a human boy sacrifices his own life to save her from certain death, she is determined to repay the debt. This she does by striking a bargain with the keeper of souls. He will return the boy's soul to her (in the shape of a small fish, which she now names Kun) in exchange for half her remaining life.

Chun's task is to keep the fish safe until he is grown, at which point he will be re-incarnated into the human world.

So far so straightforward! But this simple act of kindness puts Chun on a collision course with her fellow supernaturals and as nature itself turns nasty, she finds herself outcast from her own family who want nothing more than to hunt down and kill the “monster” as they dub Kun.

What follows is a fascinating, unpredictable working out of this conflict. Can Chun, supported by her grandparents and best friend, Qiu, protect Kun? Can she save Kun's life as well as her own, now interwoven with his? And what hope for Qiu, who loves her, yet cannot bring himself to say so?

Like I said: straightforward – once you attune to the very different framework within which this story is situated. I am aware of assumptions and references and back story, but lack the cultural map and compass with which to make sense of the on-screen action. Is this or that theme some central element of Chinese mythology? Or a personal flight of fancy on the part of directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun?

That doesn't stop me enjoying the film - it just leaves me wanting to hit Google the moment it is over. In this case, I learn that the story was inspired by a myth from the Chinese Taoist classic Zhuangzi – which is now added to the ever-growing wish list of books I hope to read some day – and draws on a number of Chinese folk tales and mythologies, including Soushen Ji (In Search Of The Sacred) and Shan Hai Jing (Classic Of Mountains And Seas).

Does it matter that Chun's power manifests through the Begonia flower which, in its white manifestation, represents death, and in its red or pink versions is about life and celebration? (Her own flower seems to be both white and pink.) Is it significant that Chun means Spring and Qiu, who she loves “as a brother” means Autumn?

Why is the keeper of souls, who collects the souls of the virtuous, accompanied everywhere by cats, while the rat matron holds on to the souls of sinners embodied as mice? If, as I do, you just love the hunting and pinning down of obscure reference, this film will tease you at every turn.

Or you may just take from it what the directors claim to have intended in the first place: a paeon to love and keeping faith. For at its heart are two strong assertions. “As long as you have a kind heart, [the judgment of others]will have nothing to do with you”. And you're a long time dead, so take risks with your life:– fall in love, climb a mountain, pursue your dream.

Once past the strangeness of the narrative, Big Fish And Begonia is beautiful, lyrical in every sense. There is a constant interplay between souls as fishes swimming through water, swimming through sky, which gives rise to a neat ambiguity: in more than one scene, sky from one angle turns out to be water from another – and vice-versa.

The colours are rich and the imagery, as well as the mythical world it represents, both interesting and surprising. Described by fans as "the dawn of the Chinese animation industry," it demonstrates an interesting divergence to anyone more used to the conventions of Japanese anime.

Subtle and, for the most part, lurking below the surface, the music by Japanese composer Kiyoshi Yoshida adds to the overall magic.


Big Fish And Begonia opens in US cinemas on the 6th of April.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2018
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Animated adventure about a girl who turns into a dolphin to visit the world of humans.
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Director: Xuan Liang, Chun Zhang

Writer: Succeed Be, Xuan Liang

Starring: Guanlin Ji, Guangtao Jiang, Shih-Chieh King, Shulan Pan, Shangqing Su, Deshun Wang, Weizhou Xu

Year: 2016

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: China

Festivals:

London 2017

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