Marrying the sensitivity of “Spirited Away” to the lushness of “The Legend of Korra” and the narrative coherence of a lucid dream, “Big Fish & Begonia” is the very rarest of Chinese exports: An animated film that was made for adults. Co-directed by Zhang Chun and Liang Xuan, two thirtysomethings who worked on the movie for more than a decade before their social media campaign caught the attention of some legit financiers, this extreme labor of love eventually managed to conquer a marketplace that has almost zero appreciation for such art.
While America at least has the likes of Pixar and Laika to offset the really cynical stuff, with mainstream oddities like “Sausage Party” and “Isle of Dogs” there to remind us that cartoons aren’t just for kids, Chinese audiences are pretty much just stuck with the “Boonie Bears” franchise (and that’s hardly an exaggeration: the country’s fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh highest-grossing animated films of all time are all “Boonie Bears” adventures).
No matter. “Big Fish & Begonia” has topped them all, raking in more than $90 million at the domestic box office on its way towards potentially revolutionizing China’s approach to animation. While the fantastical romance falls short of Studio Ghibli (or even Studio Ponoc, for that matter), it’s potent enough to pave the way for an exciting new future.
Less a coherent narrative than it is a Hieronymus Bosch-like mishmash of ancient Chinese fables, this garden of earthly delights introduces us to a mystical realm below the one we know — the floor of our ocean is the ceiling of their sky. Similar in flavor and wonderment to the magic bathhouse in “Spirited Away,” this strange underworld is home to a wildly diverse population of fantastic creatures (some more fantastic than others). Chun might look like your average teenage girl, but it isn’t long before she transforms into a red dolphin and swims through a massive vortex in the center of town in order to visit the human world as part of an elaborate coming-of-age ritual.
There, our heroine encounters a strapping young fisherman, who’s so entranced by Chun’s presence that he gets ensnared in a fishing net and drowns. Overwhelmed with guilt, Chun swims back home and visits a supernatural pawnbroker in the spirit world, a volcanic red toenail demon capable of bartering with death itself (addicted to smoking and careful to cover its soft underbelly, this so-called “soul keeper” is the most delightful supporting character in a movie that’s teeming with strong candidates).
The soul keeper offers Chun to resurrect the boy in the form of a baby narwal, provided that she sacrifice half of her own life in return. Chun — defined by her bravery and stoicism — immediately agrees to the deal. She names the creature Kun and vows to keep it safe as it matures to adulthood. Chaos ensues.
Inspired by a myth from the Taoist text “Zhuangzi (written in roughly 300 BC) and borrowing heavily from other prominent sources of Chinese folklore, “Big Fish & Begonia” is more of a stew than a story. Truth be told, it’s confusing from the drop, as the opening narration is so dense with metaphor and mythology (“Some fish aren’t meant to be caged, because they belong in the sky”) that you’re chasing the plot before it’s even underway. “The heavens have their own rules,” someone opines at one point, as if it weren’t already obvious by then.
Bits of lore are forgotten as fast as they’re introduced, leaving you grateful for the few moments when things are explicated in clear terms; three cheers for the horny grandma rat with a parasol who explains that her rodent minions are endowed with the souls of sinners from the human world. Perhaps native viewers who are more familiar with these fables might have a better grip on why Chun’s grandfather turns into a tree, or be able to keep track of the devil’s arithmetic that determines which part of whose life is supposed to go where. However, it’s to the film’s credit that neither the vividness of its underworld or the inscrutability of its laws seem to be hiding any sort of emptiness; on the contrary, it feels as though Chun’s enchanted realm exists just beyond the limits of our understanding, and we’re encouraged to make of it what we can.
And that’s plenty. The film’s surface pleasures are so abundant that losing track of the plot is always an opportunity to lose yourself in something else. “Big Fish & Begonia” is a bottomless feast for the eyes, the animation (produced by “Legend of Korra” powerhouse Studio Mir) combining the expressiveness of anime with the fluidity of Flash animation. Bright and detailed and soaring on the wings of a limitless premise, the movie takes us from shimmering lakes to snow-covered fields — from hazy mahjong dens to crowded arenas — all of these incredible sights glazed by the guzheng stirrings of Kiyoshi Yoshida’s score.
The film’s spirit world is such a dazzling place that it’s hard to fathom how kids like Chun would ever want to leave it, if only for a little while. And yet, she’s taught to treasure a selflessness that encourages her to explore the world around (or above) her and see how much of herself she can give to it. Chun’s life is literally spent on other people, but the beauty her actions create for the film and inspire from its characters is often powerful enough to make sense of a story that never bothers to make sense of itself.
“Big Fish & Begonia” is now playing in theaters.