MOVIE REVIEW: Big Fish & Begonia

(Image: Variety)

(Image: Variety)


Every lasting human culture seemingly has their personification of natural phenomena that we collectively call mythology.  From gods and goddesses to spirit animals and magic, this writer finds foreign lands endlessly fascinating for one tremendous reason that matches the niche of this website.  No matter the exotic origin or wild variety of the folklore on display, the human condition is identifiably constant. Each culture might have its own interpretation of a certain ideal, but the human plight is always the core.  The lessons from those myths than have universal connection. Start right here.

LESSON #1: THE NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS-- Man’s desire for a spiritual lifespan before and beyond our mortality is a common story thread for mythological interpretation.  No matter the source, hopeful brilliance accompanies the inevitability of life and death. Call it heady, but call it inescapable. Big Fish & Begonia goes to this pillar with beauty all its own with expressions like “some fish can never be caught.”

Narrated by a 117-year-old presence and symbolized by a legendary fish named Kun of immeasurable size, the question of where do we come from opens this film.  In this tale written as far back as the third century, our human souls are tied to primordial oceanic origins. After death, our souls are called to return to the seas as fish that swim below the water and into the sky of a new and nameless realm below.  The inhabitants of this heavenly expanses of villages and natural beauty with a liquid sky are the Others. They are not gods, but somewhere in between, as they are empowered to control the earthly elements above.

These existential ideas are commonly unnoticed through the mundane distractions of life for the humans at the surface and only dreams awaken some of those realizations and memories.  Among the Others, there is a right of passage event for 16-year-olds to enter the human world through a sky gateway to observe the humans as fish and other sea animals for a period of seven days.  Restricted from contact, these teens must only watch and never interfere.

One such girl named Chun returns as a red dolphin only find herself caught in a fisherman’s net near the immense whirlpool that would bring her home.  A human boy swims to rescue the dolphin only to drown in the tumultuous waters. Carrying immense regret at home after costing a human’s life, Chun, aided by her plant-based powers and her close friend Qiu, sets out to find the boy’s new aquatic embodiment and protect it with the intent to return him to his rightful living place.  Obstacles in their way include an evil rat matron looking to steal the portal access to the human world, the shady dealings of the soul keeper, and the threatening ecological tailspin of the seasons that have come from the imbalanced natural order of these events.

Big Fish & Begonia was influenced by the ancient Taoist myth text of Zhuangzi and knitted other elements from classical Chinese like Classic of Mountains and Seas and In Search of the Supernatural.  The slightly ambiguous mythology is perplexing to follow and thick in allegory to a degree for sure.  Yet, as aforementioned, it’s immensely reachable with its ethereal parallels to human virtues. Melodramatic moments swell with affecting beauty through dazzling creativity.

Carrying a slight darkness higher than an all-ages recommendation, this film is fantasy and adult fare fit for teens and adults with a softer touch than rapid-fire manga or anime.  This film is all about soaring sweep and it succeeds in that regard. The hand-drawn animation from B&T Studio collaborating with South Korea’s Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra, The Boondocks) wondrously creates natural elements, from schools of fish to the edges of swirling waves meeting pristine skylines, is artfully impressive and patient with detail.  That profound and genteel depth is supported by lovely and sometimes captivating orchestrations from Kiyoshi Yoshida (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time).

These narrative and aesthetic combinations make for a dynamic and sincere film from first-time writers and directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun.  Big Fish & Begonia is an excellent place for teens to soak in some much-needed empathy against the more mindless American animated offerings.  Give them an experience to absorb resonating truths on the powers of faith and love told from a different yet timeless light.  They might just be better people for it.

LESSON #2: WITHOUT JOY, WHAT IS THE POINT OF A LONG LIFE-- This lesson echoes a line from the film that is very impactful.  The reasons to maximize one’s life should be for enriching pursuits and grateful quality time with family, friends, and loved ones.  Shortening one’s joy irresponsibly or selfishly in other directions is a poor use of this gifted lifetime. You cannot get those missed opportunities back or finally consider these notions too late in a wasted or aimless life.

LESSON #3: WHAT PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO SACRIFICE LIFE FOR-- In Big Fish & Begonia, souls are traded in order to save others, right wrongs, or for matters of love.  In China or anywhere else, there is no greater sacrifice than one’s own life. For who or for what an individual is willing to pay that price is one of the highest forms of devotion and bravery.  With Lesson #2 in mind, giving life to extend another’s chance at joy is selfless to no end.



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Starring Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh, Laura Post