You might not know the Chinese animated feature Big Fish & Begonia by name, but Shout! Factory is hoping to change that by bringing the foreign hit into North American theaters this weekend. If you’re a fan of cutting-edge animation, complex characters, and a blending of the border between magic and mythology, you’ll want to seek out this film if you have the opportunity to do so. A hit in its home country, Big Fish & Begonia is another promising production from China and currently sits behind only Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Kung Fu Panda 3 at the box office for Chinese animated productions. Expect big things from this space in the future if co-directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun‘s debut is any indication.
Big Fish & Begonia takes its inspiration from ancient Chinese legends and mythology to bring about a beautiful and original tale of love and sacrifice. To be fair, folks with a cursory understanding of the specific stories the script draws from will probably have an easier time following the layered storytelling; you could do with brushing up on Chinese fables or it should suffice to know that the main characters of Chun and Qiu’s names translate into Spring and Autumn, respectively. Big Fish & Begonia excels not by translating and explaining every beat in the story but rather in its gorgeous visual display of breath-taking magic, otherworldly creatures, and heart-breaking loss. For a glimpse at the film’s magical elements, take a look at this clip, otherwise read on for my review.
From the beginning, viewers are cordially invited to enter the world of Big Fish & Begonia, a film that spends relatively little time on our side of the divide between the humans and a mystical race of beings who govern over the laws of nature. Instead, audiences get to spend a lot of time exploring the magical world with protagonist Chun (Stephanie Sheh in the English dub), a 16-year-old heir apparent to incredible powers wielded by her parents, grandparents, and ancestors. When we meet Chun, she’s in the process of going through a coming-of-age ceremony in which she transforms into a dolphin and explores the human world for a limited time alongside her friends. This brief, exciting journey for Chun is an ill-fated one and an unavoidable interaction with a boy at a nearby village leads to drastic consequences.
And it’s these consequences we see play out over the course of the film. Big Fish & Begonia isn’t the typical tale of a heroic protagonist who uses her developing skills to overcome challenges and save the day, but rather it’s a cautionary tale about messing with the laws of nature and trying to will your own reality into existence. Essentially, it’s a story about Chun attempting to right wrongs that she’s made along the way, as well as everyone who will pay the price for those mistakes in the process.
One such hard-luck character is Qiu (Johnny Yong Bosch), a roguish rascal of a boy who pines after Chun and will do literally anything to both impress her and keep her safe. Complicating what might otherwise be a familiar story of star-crossed lovers–or perhaps a tale of one-sided, unrequited love–is Kun, (Todd Haberkorn), the human boy who becomes unintentionally entangled in this mystical world, which he can only inhabit by taking the form of a mythical flying fish. This last bit is thanks in part to Chun’s actions and is one of the moments where suspension of disbelief is necessary to fully enjoy Big Fish & Begonia.
That all sets the stage for the chaos that’s about to descend on our cast of characters. Nothing is in its natural place at this point, so either Chun and the boys will have to put things right or the all-powerful elements of nature will do it for them. The story extends far beyond this trio as other characters are also affected in both Chun and Kun’s worlds, though we get to see much more of Chun’s extended family than that of the human world. This decision lets Big Fish & Begonia take the action to ridiculously imaginative levels while never losing the sense of dread that threatens to destroy our comparatively mundane world. It’s a balance that’s tough to achieve but is surprisingly well done.
Big Fish & Begonia deserves to be talked about in the same conversation with some of the best efforts of Studio Ghibli and even Disney. There might be a small cultural knowledge barrier to overcome here–the script doesn’t hold your hand–but that shouldn’t deter you from experiencing this original, heartfelt tale. In fact, it should encourage you to do so.
Big Fish & Begonia arrives in limited North American theaters this weekend before expanding its release later this month.