Chinese feature animation has reached a new level of achievement with “Big Fish & Begonia,” which grossed nearly $90 million in China, was a festival fave, and was picked up by Shout! Studios for North America. The mystical and visually stunning hand-drawn folk tale, from directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, bows this weekend in LA, San Francisco, and New York before expanding next week. But will American audiences respond and will the Academy elevate Chinese animation with an Oscar nomination?
“The Chinese animation industry is at the beginning of a huge growth period,” said Liang. “In recent years, some excellent Chinese animated films were released and did very well at the box office. That means the market is now looking forward to more domestic animated films. There’s more and more capital and talent entering the animation fields in both film and television, and I believe that Chinese animation will soon enter a period of rapid development.”
Embarking on a Feature Adventure
Inspired by their own culture (including such ’60s animated classics as “Havoc in Heaven” and the ancient Taoist text, “Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi”), Liang and Zhang embraced Chinese folklore with “Big Fish & Begonia.” It’s about a mystical race of beings who live underwater and control the tide and the changing of the seasons, and the dangerous and thrilling rite of passage for 16-year-old Chun. She enters the human world as a dolphin, and is saved by a young man who sacrifices his life for hers. Chun then vows to protect his soul, putting hers at risk. Nature and mysticism intertwine with beauty and fantastical creatures, ranging from rats to a two-headed snake.
But it wasn’t easy. It took 12 years for the directors to make their pet project. They co-founded B&T Studio in 2003 and a year later Liang had a dream that inspired the Flash-animated short version of “Big Fish & Begonia.” They developed the feature, creating test footage between 2007 and 2009, but with no faith in Chinese animation, they found no investors. The project languished until a crowdsourcing campaign led to investment from Enlight Media in 2013.
“All together, the film took two-and a-half years of full-time work to produce,” said Liang. “The backgrounds were done digitally by sketching on tablets by hand. Some of the characters were made with Flash, and some were hand-drawn on paper and then scanned into a computer. A large amount of 3D technology was also utilized to assist the backgrounds and post-production. To achieve a unified style throughout the whole film, 2D images painted by background illustrators were mapped onto the 3D models of backgrounds to weaken the 3D effect as much as possible.”
Character and World Building
Zhang, who first created Chun for the short, worked with the team of designers to integrate the imaginary realm of humans, animals, and other strange creatures into a single world. “Getting that right only comes from relying on intuition,” he said. “The image of the fish references several large marine organisms, such as whales, dolphins, and so on, but it’s also a conceptual symbol. It’s natural for the audience to like dolphins since they’re always gentle and have a close connection to people. So the design trajectory of the fish is basically summed up as: thumb-size fish, small dolphin, big dolphin, and then whale with wings. In addition, his head design refers to the characteristics of some mammals, such as dogs and wolves, which gives him more facial expressions to perform with.”
Meanwhile, the fantasy world is based on actual tulou housing complexes — earthen communal residences — of the Hakka culture in South China. They went to Fujian to do location investigation and found that the tulou itself looked very unreal. “As the basis of this fantasy world, the building is perfect and saved us a lot of work,” said Zhang. “The tulou is a circle, like a cage, which alludes to the theme of the movie where the protagonist finally breaks away from the cage in search of freedom.”
Reinvigorating Chinese Animation
The current animation industry is still in the initial stages of recovery, according to Zhang, which means that the lack of talent remains a serious problem. “It might be easy for some other markets to make high-quality animated films, but we can’t find enough suitable people to complete our work in China,” he said. “There’s no perfect system for the production process. The whole process of filmmaking is done sort of by moving forward while feeling things out.”
In terms of storytelling, the directors strove to convey a combination of Eastern and Western mythological influences. In particular, they drew on archetypes and references from “Zhuangzi,” with its character transformations and sage advice about life and death,while also incorporating the influential hero’s journey that’s at the heart of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
“The reason why these myths and literary classics have a history of thousands of years is because they contain some universal values for different societies or mankind as a whole,” said Liang. “The protection of life, the yearning for freedom, and so on. So even after thousands of years, they can still resonate with people today.”