Big Fish & Begonia 《大鱼·海棠》

Title: 大鱼 海棠
Director: Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: ☆ || 3.5 stars

[plenty of visuals because this film is so stunning]

My brother is insisting that I give this a five-star review, but even though I really, really, really (I cannot overstate this) loved the film, I can only really give it a 3.5 out of 5. The last time I was this invested in Chinese animation, I was three years old and 《宝莲灯》 had just come out; Chinese animation has really been going through a revival recently (never let it be forgotten that the first animated film in Asia was 《铁扇公主》), but though in general, the visuals and the engagement with traditional thought and mythology has been really great, I still find them overall to be quite weak story-wise  and character-wise (I had similar issues with 《小门神》and 《西游记之大圣归来》, both of which which I do plan to review at a later date).

I know a lot of people on Tumblr have been comparing this to The Legend of Korra and to the Studio Ghibli films, but with all due respect to Tumblr, none of y’all know shit about East Asian history, and specifically Chinese history, and even more specifically the history of Chinese cinema. Even though the Korean production company that was behind Legend of Korra also worked on 《大鱼海棠》, I found that in terms of animation style, in terms of theme, in terms of characters, it was much more reminiscent of the ’80s cartoons of my youth; specifically, it reminded me of 《宝莲灯》and《哪吒闹海》and the one thing this film did spectacularly well was to truly capture the spirit of the Chinese imagination.

Water is a really important part of our lives, and so it has a central presence in our mythology as well. We tend to define ourselves by water: geographically, the (Han) Chinese heartland is in the Yellow River Delta, while the country itself is split into north and south by the Changjiang. We have and remain a primarily agricultural people, and the vast majority of Chinese people are farmers or come from farmers. Our dragons are water gods, Erlangshen is most commonly identified as Li Erlang, deified and canonised because of his role in expanding irrigation, while the colloquial endonym for Chinese people is “龙的传人,” or descendants of the dragon.

But as all people who live and die by the land, we know the water to be destructive as well. During the building of the Three Gorges Dam, thousands of people were relocated as hundreds of villages were flooded by the river. The Yellow River floods with terrifying regularity, as does the Changjiang. Chiang Kai-shek’s attempt to delay the Japanese invasion of the Chinese heartland resulted in a flood that killed half a million civillians, and among the foundational aspects of our mythology is the Great Flood.

So it’s not really surprising that the film, based off mythology from《山海经》,《庄子》,《搜神记》, would take water and flood as its primary motifs. The premise of the film is this: all humans are transformed from fish. When they reincarnate, they swim from this world of myth upwards into the sky, into our oceans, where they become people. There are people who live in this other world, who are the caretakers of myth, of nature, of balance, and every year, when the children turn sixteen, they are turned into red dolphins for seven days to experience the human world before coming back.

Chun is a reticent girl, but on her trip to the human world, she meets a nameless boy and his younger sister, who live by the sea. When he tries to rescue her from a dolphin net, she inadvertently causes his death. Upon her return home, she is plagued by guilt and decides to try and return his spirit to the human world, even at the cost of her own life.

As usual, nice things first.

It’s immediately evident from the trailers and promotional MVs that the visuals are spectacular. They’re so fantastical and whimsical and full of life and spirit, and to be honest, ancient (and I mean properly ancient as in pre-Qin, not “I’m an Orientalist so I think that 1860 constitutes ‘ancient China’ because history is exchangeable and time is a lie”) Chinese mythology has been one of my primary interests since I was a child, but nothing I’ve ever watched or read has come close to portraying the immediacy of gods and myths in quite the same way.

I was initially a little hesitant because we ended up watching this in 3D and I don’t often like the use of 3D in film, but this was done so wonderfully it gave the animation a sense of depth and vastness that echoes the ocean it takes as a motif. It’s really hard for me to describe the feeling I had while watching this, because I had such high hopes and I’d been anticipating this for so long, but my Chinese poetry professor once said something to this extent: Chinese people do not climb mountains and visit famous places merely for the scenery; we do it to walk in the footsteps of the people who came before us, to see what they saw, feel what they felt, to know of what they speak when they write beautiful words. It felt like that. Ancient stuff––上古 stuff––always feels like that to me, a reminder that no matter what, we have and will always endure, through famine and flood.

I also really enjoyed the cameos by certain people from Chinese foundational myths: Zhurong, who brought us fire, much like Prometheus did for the Greeks, Chisongzi, who set himself aflame and became immortal, Kun, the flying fish who was so large he could become an island. These are the stories we’re told from a young age, and we live with our myths in ways that give them wear and tear and breath and life, even if objectively we may no longer believe in their reality. We share a space with our stories, and to see them alive as part of the backdrop and worldbuilding made them dear and intimate the way they are in life outside of fiction.

But on the level of storytelling, I really didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to. This particular narrative borrows heavily from one of my favourite Chinese myths, the one of 女娲补天. But where 女娲’s story is one of self-sacrifice, of preservation and creation, Chun’s story felt to me like one of a short-sighted girl who seems to care more for a boy she knew for but an instant than for the people she’s known all her life. The narrative lacked focus––certain threads were introduced, never to truly be resolved. It’s strange that the fantastical elements––the grandfather who turns into a begonia tree, the grandmother who turns into a phoenix, the girl who is a flower who is a fish, the boy who turns into ashes and wind and rain to love her––ring so true, while the relatively simpler aspect of simply telling a coherent story fell flat.

None of the characters, despite their beautiful designs, felt truly alive to me, and that’s in part because the voice acting and the dialogue felt really stiff and in part because their relationships felt so arbitrary, not at all organic. Chun seemed to care for Kun because the plot demanded that she did, not because she truly was, and while Qiu’s love for Chun is apparent through the whole of the film, I never got a sense either of their history together or that Chun ever did anything to induce him to fall in love, specifically because she was such a reactive and not a proactive character. Almost all of her choices in the film were choices other people made for her or told her to make, while the emotional resonance of the only true decision she makes in the film––the decision to give up half her life in exchange for Kun’s––feels unearned, because neither character has personality enough for us to identify with or root for them.

The plot itself feels cheapened by a lack of motivation and the fact that it relies on heavy exposition to move forward, and though the narration is meant to induce a sense of myth what it does it reduce the subtlety, and through the heavy bludgeoning of some of the central messages, those messages, conversely, feel much less weighty for it.

The main issue I have with the film is this: it doesn’t feel earned. We are not shown things much less told, and even when we are told we have not the proof to turn the telling into truth. It’s a film based heavily in the mythological history of China, so no one is expecting realism, but it doesn’t feel honest.

It may be odd that even after all of this I am strongly recommending everyone to watch this film if it’s available where you live. I feel about this the way I feel about a lot of Zhang Yimou’s later films; there’s no real content to watch for, but the visuals themselves are more than enough to make up for any shortcomings. But most importantly, the sensory experience this film evokes feels truthful, even if the story doesn’t, and this is really the only film in recent years that, at the risk of sounding essentialist, has managed to capture the aesthetic and spiritual character of myth, and the ways myths live with us as a part of our everyday lives to intersect with the mundane.

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2 thoughts on “Big Fish & Begonia 《大鱼·海棠》

  1. Love this review! I’m halfway through watching the movie now and I’m not sure I can finish it…I can’t figure out what’s going on half the time and Chun’s motivations are an enigma. Hope Chinese animators can figure out how to tell a story with style AND substance — thinking in particular of Cartoon Saloon films, which honor Irish/Celtic lore while still giving us amazing characters and relationships.

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    1. Yeah, it’s something I’ve noticed a lot of Chinese animation fans complaining about on Baidu forums as well. There were similar complaints about 大圣归来 where it’s a lot more about style than about substance, which is really disappointing because when you create a beautifully rendered and scored film it means so little? When it’s only an empty shell and you’re not saying or doing anything really interesting with the source material, especially when this is supposed to be based off of one of Chinese people’s foundational myths? The more I think about it the more underwhelmed I am, though I still own merch because it’s so pretty haha.

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