Big Fish & Begonia (Dàyú hǎitáng)

Big Fish & Begonia (Dàyú hǎitáng) 2016

My knowledge of Chinese animation history is tiny so I have nothing to compare Big Fish & Begonia to, which is not a bad thing exactly, but I do like to be able to contextualise a film a little when I do a write up.

So, while I can’t do that now I’ll instead note that I did look into the production history and wow, the film went through a long, emotional lead-up to the release. Directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun started out together, built up a team, had a falling out, disbanded, got some funding, went into commercial side-projects to try and fund the film, used crowd-funding and eventually landed a big investor over the course of twelve years.

The obvious segue here is – was it all worth it?

As a viewer, yes, very much so!

Now, I know some reviews focus on what they consider shortcomings in the narrative and I can definitely see that. There are a few leaps between events and character motivation/reflection that could have been fleshed out or made more explicit perhaps… but I wonder for me, how many of those issues might have been mitigated by a deeper knowledge of Chinese culture and myth (like those found in Zhuangzi), a knowledge that I just don’t have?

And so I had no problem setting those qualms aside and being swept up in the beautiful animation and visuals, the earnestness of the heroine Chun, the magic of the world. Maybe such concerns over the storyline too, were more about an international audience not being catered to?

Because I certainly got the feeling that it was important to the filmmakers and team to create something that would enthrall a local audience and elevate the medium in China firstly, and any concerns about whether the movie would also work as an ‘export’ were certainly be secondary (that’s my impression from the ‘making of’ featurette, though I think it’s alluded to here in this interview as well).

But, back to the film itself – Big Fish is kind of ‘sweeping’ (maybe more in a visual sense) without being made up of epic battles or long timespans, but there’s plenty of conflict too, as the characters strive to do what’s right but invariably find themselves fighting for different things. And added to that of course, are those who invariably seek to benefit from the love and desperation of others – I won’t slip into spoiler territory here but there are two fascinating characters who fit that role to a greater or lesser degree that I really enjoyed.

I think on a surface level comparisons to Spirited Away are probably going to be clear to some fans if they pick up Big Fish & Begonia, but the storytelling isn’t as focused for me here, yet the visual aspects eclipse Ghibli in some ways so whether you’ll love this film or ‘only’ enjoy it might come down to what you expect from a feature film 🙂

4 Stars

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