Whilst Big Fish & Begonia is far from China’s first foray into the world of anime, the genre is still associated with Japan to the point that there’s a real novelty to watching an anime feature produced by a different country with a different culture.
In many ways, the film feels as though it was torn straight from Studio Ghibli, but it’s in a way that never feels anything less than authentically Chinese. It bombards you with gloriously inventive characters and beings that populate its vibrant world.
Big Fish & Begonia has been touted as something of China’s first steps towards having a notable animation industry akin to that in Japan. The project was in development for well over a decade before finally making its way to the big screen and so it has a lot riding on it. With that in mind, it’s almost no wonder that it’s so visually accomplished. For better or worse, there’s nothing to visually distinguish this film from the works of Hayao Miyazaki.
Loosely based on the Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text, the film offers a look inside an aspect of a culture you may be unfamiliar with on such a deep level. The plot revolves around Chun, a young girl from a parallel world that exists beneath ours. It’s inhabited by beings who oversee the natural order of things on Earth. Their coming of age ritual involves travelling to our seas in the form of red dolphins. Whilst on her Earthly pilgrimage, Chun befriends a young human boy. One night, she finds herself in trouble after being caught in some netting during a storm. The boy rescues her but drowns in the process and, so, once back in the parallel world, Chun bargains with a soul-keeper who agrees to resurrect the boy in return for half of her life.
She accepts and is given the boy’s soul in the form of a baby dolphin, who she must now raise to maturity before it can return to the human world. The problem is that beings from Earth are forbidden within Chun’s realm and what follows are the inevitable obstacles and set pieces she has to overcome in order to keep the soul safe.
Chun is, sadly, quite a bland protagonist, as are all of the film’s leads. Indeed, Big Fish & Begonia’s strongest facet is probably its imaginative supporting cast of characters, all of whom are well realised and performed.
Your average viewer may want to skip this one given its relatively slow pace and somewhat dull attempt at emotional depth. At a running time of an hour and 45 minutes, it really does start to flag as it begins to succumb to increasingly convoluted story strands and elements. That said, anime addicts owe it to themselves to go out and watch what should offer a refreshing twist on the genre they love.
BIG FISH & BEGONIA / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: XUAN LIANG, CHUN ZHANG / SCREENPLAY: XUAN LIANG, DANIEL CHUBA / STARRING: GUANLIN JI, SHANGQING SU, TIMMY XU, SHULAN PAN / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 18TH (LIMITED)
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10