Directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun have been trying to put their feature animation together since 2004 and their passion certainly evident on screen. Drawing on ancient Chinese mythology, Big Fish & Begonia is an ambitious and emotional tale.
We’re told that there is a realm underneath the human world where magical beings spend their lives in harmony. Adolescents are sent through a maelstrom into our world for seven days as a coming of age ritual, where they live as dolphins and are forbidden from interacting with people. But when a young man dies saving Chun from a hunters’ snare, she brings a piece of him back with her in the hopes that she can restore him to life.
The realm’s soul keeper agrees to help (at a price, of course). The boy’s soul is manifested as a tiny narwhal that she will have to keep secret and look after until it grows big enough to travel back through the maelstrom. In exchange, Chun gives up half of her lifespan, but the cost of keeping something that doesn’t belong will affect everyone.
The magical realm is stunning, a brightly coloured dream world with unusual creatures and fantastic wildlife. However, the opening minutes are somewhat disingenuous, filled as they are with giddily happy youths and a surprising amount of toilet humour. Once Chun begins her task of raising her human dolphin (now named Kun), she faces hardships at every turn. Her loyal friend Qiu desperately tries to help while concealing his love for her but each victory comes at an increasingly heavy cost. There’s endless self-sacrifice and a lack of communication, but it often feels like the exact message the film is trying to get across is a little muddled.
But, as heavy and occasionally confusing as things get, there are wonderful moments of levity and eccentricity. These are courtesy of the cat-loving soul keeper and the gleeful rat matron (a brilliantly gleeful and self-serving antagonist). While the story perhaps isn’t as polished as it could be, it’s a beautiful world to get lost in.