Film reviews

London Film Festival 2017: The Breadwinner leads day four’s selection

Big Fish & Begonia

STARRING: Ji Guanlin, Weizhou Xu, Guanlin Ji, Guangtao Jiang, Shih-Chieh King

DIRECTORS: Xuan Liang, Chun Zhang
WRITERS: Succeed Be (story by), Xuan Liang

So, after all that, it’s fair to say that Big Fish & Begonia had the deck rather stacked against it by the unfortunate virtue of having to follow The Breadwinner, and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a film that was up to the task. Then again, that is through no fault of its own, and Big Fish & Begonia is a perfectly fine slice of Chinese animated fantasy. Set in a magical world slightly below our own, young girl Chun (Ji Guanlin) takes part in a coming of age ritual where she spends a week experiencing the human world as a red dolphin. On her return trip, however, she gets caught in a net, from which she is rescued by a young human boy (Weizhou Xu) whom, in the chaos, she accidentally kills. Wracked with guilt over this, she bargains with a soul keeper to bring the boy back to life in exchange for half of her own, which he does but, thanks to the way that souls in this universe work, the boy is brought back as a tiny red dolphin and must grow back to full-size before he can return to the human world.

Naturally, tampering with life and death has its unforeseen consequences, which in this case involves the gradual destruction of Chun’s home world, leading to her fellow villagers revolting against the dolphin without knowing that, because Chun and the boy’s lives are now intertwined, killing the dolphin will also kill Chun. Big Fish & Begonia (and it is a pain in the arse that I can’t just shorten that title to Big Fish) is therefore a quintessentially Chinese look at the nature of life, the soul, and noble karmic redemption, lacking full-on villains (although there are a couple of unintentional antagonists), and preaching ideals of nobility and self-sacrifice. However, the film also suffers from a few of the same problems that crop up in lesser-Western animated fare, in that the pacing is very awkward with too many side characters, and the whole thing is just too narratively generic to allow for the kind of investment and emotional wallop that the film is aiming for, which is what stops it from being anything more than just “fine.”

It is, though, a visually gorgeous piece of fine fantasy. The animation was worked on by Studio Mir, of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra fame, and their art style and aesthetics are evident from the word go. Boarding is strong, character designs for the more colourful characters that populate the spirit world are arresting and make up for most of the film otherwise following a plain girl and boy, Chun’s friend Qiu (Shangkqing Su), you’ve seen hundreds of times before, and the interplay of colours and shades is often sublime. The studio’s attempts to integrate CGI into their traditional-animation techniques are still very awkward and slightly off-putting, but other than that, and as veterans of both Avatar and Korra might have expected to happen when you give Studio Mir a feature-film budget, the results are a feast for the eyes. I just wish the brain and the heart had something more to chew on.

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