Ten years ago, Kung Fu Panda came out in China, and while audiences there loved the story of animals who were martial arts warriors, the old heads in the government and culture reacted to it as a national humiliation. “Why didn’t we make this movie?” they wondered. The short answer is that China’s massive film industry was entirely geared towards live-action spectacles and not animation. (There are much longer answers.) Since then, those old heads have reacted the same way to Korean soap operas and Indian films, but the effort to make China’s own animated films has been on full blast, enduring a few early efforts that looked like video games for the PlayStation 1. It all culminates in Big Fish & Begonia, a movie that starts playing today (not Friday) at AMC Grapevine Mills in both Mandarin- and English-language versions, and shows that the Chinese have made up some serious ground.
The film takes place in the next world, located under the ocean floor, where the souls of dead people go. There, a 16-year-old girl whose name, Chun (voiced by Ji Guanlin in the Chinese version, and Stephanie Sheh in the English one), means “begonia.” She has the power to make begonia trees sprout up at will in her world, and her rite of passage involves spending seven days in our world, in the form of a red dolphin. However, on her way back, she gets caught in a fishing net, and a local boy named Kun (voiced by Xu Weizhou and Todd Haberkorn) drowns while cutting her free. Back in the spirit world, she strikes a deal to bring Kun back to life, again in the form of a dolphin, but going against the laws of nature makes her a fugitive from everyone she knows.
The character design is heavily influenced by the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and the water dragon that opens the gates between the worlds is straight out of Spirited Away. Still, the decor and the folk tales that this draws from are unmistakably Chinese, and writer-director Liang Xuan and co-director Zhang Chun give us some remarkable visuals like pods of red dolphins flying through the sky, or huge packs of rats swimming through a frozen river. Along the way, Chun meets the keeper of dead souls (voiced by King Shih-Chieh and John White), an officious one-eyed clerk who lives with dozens of cats and clones herself so she can play mahjong against herself. (And yes, a female spirit has a man’s voice.)
It’s a pity, then, that this is marred by too much voiceover narration by an aged Chun (voiced by Pan Shulan and Fong Sung) droning about the transmigration of souls, and the ending is a hopeless tangle of multiple characters nobly sacrificing themselves (more than once in some cases) for love. Despite this, the visual splendors before our eyes make Big Fish & Begonia a useful starting point for Chinese animation. A starting point is all it is, though.
Big Fish & Begonia
Voices by Ji Guanlin, Stephanie Sheh, Xu Weizhou, and Todd Haberkorn. Directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. Written by Liang Xuan. Rated PG-13.