Big Fish and Begonia

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Towards the climax of the Chinese cartoon Big Fish and Begonia, there’s a watery apocalypse. Huge tubular waterfalls break through clouds and hammer down on the green fantasy realm where most of the film takes place. The titular giant fish, which is actually a resurrected human soul, takes to the sky, swooping around one of the funnels of water. It’s chased by a huge bird, carrying a boy resembling a demon who shoots fire at the fish, but he’s blocked by a phoenix carrying a girl, who’s in love with the fish’s soul.

Even by cartoon standards, all this might seem a bit odd, though fans of Japanese animation should take it in their stride (plenty of odder things happen in the Dragon Ball franchise). And Big Fish and Begonia overwhelmingly resembles an anime film. Co-director Zhang Chun acknowledged anime’s influence, though its character designs, especially for the more fantastical figures, are more “Asian” than much anime. Miyazaki Hayao’s work is an obvious touchstone, though the intensity of the film’s eco-catastrophes recalls 1988’s Akira. This is not the only way in which Big Fish and Begonia isn’t very child-friendly. While there are cute cartoon moments, there’s also a slaughter of a school of dolphins early in the film, while the second half becomes tragic, downbeat and frankly turgid before a redemptive ending.

The story is vaguely inspired by myths, but as with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), it’s largely the creation of its writer-directors, Zhang and Liang Xuan. Much of it parallels the Little Mermaid story, following a girl, Chun, who lives in an “undersea” (but not aquatic) otherworld. Her teen rite of passage involves visiting our world in the form of a dolphin. The film’s repeated images of dolphins and whales “swimming” through the air feel almost actionably close to the Pines of Rome sequence in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 (1999). Chun befriends a handsome boy – a peasant, not Mermaid’s Prince – and inadvertently causes him to drown as he saves her from a net.

Returning distraught to her underworld, Chun makes a pact with a mystical keeper of souls to resurrect the boy, who takes on fish form himself. The price Chun pays, giving up half her lifespan, will remind anime fans of a similar story point in Japan’s Death Note franchise. From here on, the film becomes a love-triangle, with Chun helped by her male friend Qiu, who’s hopelessly in love with Chun himself. There are shades of Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008) as Chun’s pact is cosmically illegal, and causes her world to be catastrophically flooded – a threat taken far more seriously here than it was by Miyazaki.

Purely as a cartoon spectacle, the film is a treat, with lovely images and ideas: a vast building with endless bowls of fish-shaped souls; an old man’s trailing hair which turns into rivers on a valley floor. But after some enthralling early scenes, the film itself trails off badly. Its characters lack the presence to be more than ciphers in a tale they should carry, a cycle of heroic sacrifices that’s hard to care about. Even the interesting weird players, such as an alarmingly bawdy witch who has rodent teeth and a rat army, don’t get the time they deserve. Many viewers will feel less sorry for Chun or her resurrected boyfriend than for Qiu, Chun’s lovelorn best friend, though his story has a surprisingly satisfying payoff in a brief epilogue during the end credits.

[I reviewed the film again for Neo magazine when it was released on home video, and found more to like.]

This isn’t anime – it’s a remarkably lavish Chinese fantasy that makes a fascinating contrast with the recent Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Both Mary and Big Fish are extremely Ghibli-ish fantasies, but whereas Mary is affable family fare, Big Fish evokes the unnervingly mad, weird side of Ghibli.

Specifically, Big Fish goes for the crazy fantasy of Spirited Away. It’s nearly all set in a magic realm under our world. A non-human girl, Chun, falls in forbidden love with a human, and strives to rescue him when he drowns (pure Little Mermaid). Chun resurrects the boy as a fish in her world, a forbidden act that might destroy the world.

In the film’s cycle of tragedy, multiple characters sacrifice themselves for a person or people they love. The one (apparently) villainous character is great fun, but she’s incidental to the cycle, and simply vanishes before the climax. Wait through the end credits, as a crucial epilogue scene takes the cycle to a higher level.

Chun’s world has huge fish swimming in air; Biblical floods which drown landscapes; phoenixes married to old men who turn into trees; and sinister fairy-tale denizens who command cats and rats, and who trade in human souls. (Warning; children may be upset by a brief scene of dolphins being slaughtered.)

If you’ve seen Spirited Away, then Big Fish will inevitably feel less boggling and a few images will feel outrageously familiar. But its vision is impressive, and richly rewards rewatching because of the strange, funny details you catch on second view, often involving background creatures and props.

The characters, though, are infuriating. They move so gracefully, yet we rarely feel their feelings. This should be a story of relationships, of a magic girl who loves a human, of another boy who silently, hopelessly loves her, and of the girl’s people who also love her, but who turn against her because of her taboo-breaking choices.

But the film can’t make us care for them. There are a few very touching moments, but many come just as the film is ending. Much of the story feels choppy and arbitrary, full of one-after-another incidents that don’t open up the characters. Big Fish could be an “abridged” movie version of a longer serial, with all the essential character-building trimmed out, except that its exquisite production values are absurdly beyond TV.

But we’re still giving the film a generous mark, because it looks so lovely, because it’s so rewatchable, and because if you do rewatch it, you’ll connect with it more despite its character and story problems.