Wednesday, March 07, 2018

NYICFF ’18: Big Fish & Begonia

To most of us, A Dog’s Purpose is a dog movie (and previously a dog book), but it also suggests there is more in store for us than one single go-round on Earth. When it became a surprise hit in China, it joined the success of the Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms book, film, and television franchise. Maybe crony-commie-capitalism and the fuerdai party scene just are not enough for a lot of Chinese yuppies as they get older. By taking inspiration from the Zhuangzi and other ancient compendiums of legend, filmmakers Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun further bolster the mini-trend. There is indeed another world beyond our own in Zhang & Liang’s Big Fish & Begonia (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Compared to us mortals, Chun is a veritable demigod, but she is not immortal. Living in a magical realm, she must journey to Earth to observe mankind in the guise of a dolphin, as part of the requisite coming-of-age ritual. If she does not return after seven days, the portal will be forever closed to her. That appears to be her fate when Chun is ensnared in fishing nets, but the noble mortal Kun cuts her free, tragically drowning in the process.

Feeling responsible for his death, Chun cuts a deal with the keeper of the underworld to reincarnate Kun’s soul immediately. However, she must watch over the baby dolphin he now inhabits, until he can make the return journey. Much to anguish of the torch-carrying, friend-zoned Qiu, Chun’s affinity for Kun quickly develops into love. However, his unnatural presence in her world threatens to upset the cosmic balance.

So maybe it is a little like Shape of Water, but it predates the Oscar winner by at least a year. Of course, it does not predate Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, or the Orpheus myth for that matter, but it has a weird New Age vibe that is all its own. Regardless, the big news is Big Fish can totally hang with mid-level Studio Ghibli in terms of animation quality. There is no question this finest Chinese feature animation of the current era, probably going all the way back to Wan Laiming’s The Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven, thanks to the steady stream of genuinely arresting visuals Zhang and Liang serve up.

This really is an eye-popping world, but the narrative might be too woo-woo for its own good. Frankly, they never really establish how and why Chun and Kun fall in love, beyond his obvious sacrifice, nor do the levels of apocalyptic doom track smoothly from the tragic set-up. Arguably, it would all click better if they dialed down the cosmic elements and made it a simpler story of Chun trying to do right by Kun for reasons of guilt, compassion, and ecumenical humanist love.

On the other hand, the otherworldliness of BF&B makes it fascinating to unpack, especially since it was produced in a country whose government still equates religion with superstition. Just imagine how unamused the Gang of Four would be. Viewers will truly feel like they were immersed in a fantasy world, which is very cool.

The film’s ambition and the extent to which Liang and Zhang successful realize it on screen is also hugely impressive. This really raises the reputation of Chinese animation, as well as the stakes. You really have to see it to appreciate its scope, but it will be worth it for older animation fans. (Parents should be warned, it was hugely “divisive” among youngsters at its last NYICFF screening.) Recommended for sophisticated animation connoisseurs and audiences for reincarnation films, such as Along with the Gods and What Dreams May Come, Big Fish & Begonia screens again this Sunday (3/11) and the following Sunday (3/18), as part of the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.