By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The anime feature “Big Fish & Begonia,” directed by Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang, took 12 years to complete, and was systematically designed to put China on the map in a style and tradition dominated by the Japanese (with some interesting incursions from South Korea). It’ll do that, handily, on the strength of its supple, rich, and ever-shifting visuals.
The story, written by Xuan Liang from a confluence of Chinese folk tales, confuses at times. It’s set primarily in a realm of magic, positioned below the corporeal world that humans live in, and below the human oceans. The magical beings there usually, though not always, assume human form, except for a rite of passage in their teen years. They assume the form of ocean animals, to get a look, though not too close a look, at the humans.
We meet a teenage girl called Chun, who’s going up the enormous enchanted spout for her liaison with humans and aquatic life. We also meet Chun’s best friend Qiu, who’s known her since early childhood and harbors strong, though not entirely platonic, feelings for her.
And Chun, once she’s transformed into a red dolphin, will meet a teenage boy, a human, who will challenge everything she’s ever thought and felt. Her determination to save him at any cost will prove her steadfastness and her good heart. But it will also disrupt, and threatened to ruin, all of the multiverse — the humans’ land, the ocean, the spiritual realm, and even the sky that sits above all.
Talking too much about the plot would give away too many spoilers. Suffice to say that for most of the movie’s run, someone is in serious trouble, dead or dying. And someone will sacrifice to bring that person back.
So many crises and so many salvations do become somewhat wearying, especially at such a frantic pace. And while the film is pitched at children, not adults, the whole notion that someone can always be brought back, for the right price or the right sacrifice, seems implausible. Even in realms of magic, sometimes what is destroyed, stays destroyed.
The anime vistas save the day. The sky and the sea seem ever interchangeable in this fantasyland, so any sort of critters, dolphins included, might swim through the air in hordes. Figures float in the air, or what seems to be air. Solo excursions or massive groups move up and down and all around the frame, showing off a color scheme with bright reds and blues. Secret places and secret rituals reveal even more fantastic characters, boasting color schemes of their own, adding their own plotting and their own unorthodox bodies to the mix.
China now has the deserved attention of the anime world. I’m hoping the next one out after this will give viewers a less hysterical and more practical plot. But Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang prove they can knock your eye out and throw in some well-intentioned, if naïve, thoughts on life, power, struggle, and sacrifice.
“Big Fish & Begonia” opens on April 11. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.