Chinese animation makes a confident play for art and relevance with “Big Fish & Begonia,” a swell of myth, nature, adolescent turbulence and fantasy intrigue that impresses more often than it organically dazzles, and yet succeeds mostly because of its beating heart.
It’s impossible not to think of Japan’s animation deity Hayao Miyazaki when watching this movie’s lyrical flourishes — morphing creatures, magical worlds, a little “Spirited Away” here, a little “Ponyo” there — but there’s also a concerted effort on the parts of directors Xuan Liang (who also wrote it) and Chun Zhang to establish their own alchemic wonder. Where Miyazaki’s wisdom kept his prodigious imagination in the service of intimacy, “Big Fish” is daringly, if haphazardly, epic with its vision and feelings. The urge to awe may feel self-conscious at times, but it’s rarely not heartfelt, even when it’s skirting the edge of incomprehensible.
Detailing the story’s intertwined human and spiritual worlds takes some time in the early going, but the set-up’s basic gist is that life on earth is tied to the movement of the oceans, which are controlled by beings in a sky realm. The story centers on one of these otherworldly figures from above, a 16-year-old girl named Chun who is eager to explore the human world through an established ritual — one involving a massive whirlpool-like water portal — that allows an “other” to visit life below in the form of a red dolphin.
The trip can only last seven days, however, and mustn’t involving direct interaction with humans, due to the prevailing belief that they’ve made a mess of things. (And who can blame them, especially when it comes to sea mammals?)
Chun defies the rules, though, and initiates a wordless dolphin-girl connection with a kind fisherman’s son who shows an abiding respect for aquatic life. When Chun gets trapped in a fishing net, the boy saves her, but drowns in the process. Distraught and eager to right this wrong, Chun returns to her world with one of the boy’s possessions — an ocarina — and looks for a way to bring him back to life. This requires bargaining with the soul keeper, a wily, mahjong-playing figure who demands half of Chun’s life in return for the chance for her to nurture the boy’s soul, manifest in their realm as a baby dolphin, into adulthood, after which he can return to the human world.
Chun’s selflessness isn’t seen as such by the others, except for her childhood pal Qiu, a gung-ho boy with obvious feelings for Chun. Though he suffers pangs of jealousy over Chun’s attention to her human-born, dolphin-bodied charge (which she names Kun), Qiu sticks up for Chun, and eventually offers his own form of sacrifice to keep her and the ever-growing Kun safe.
But they’re up against a concerned citizenry, who blame the increasingly unnatural weather on the human in their midst. Chun and Qiu are also in danger of being manipulated by a devious sewer queen who houses the souls of departed human sinners in the form of rats.
It may feel as if an entire encyclopedia’s worth of Chinese mythology were coursing over you in one trippy movie. Indeed, much of the integrated inspiration for Liang’s and Zhang’s story comes from such storied texts of colorful folklore as “Classic of Mountains and Seas” and “In Search of the Supernatural,” and perhaps most prominently — in the case of one character’s turning into a giant tree, and its importance to the story’s resolution — from the ancient Taoist collection of fables called “Zhuangzi.”
At its visual best, “Big Fish & Begonia” makes lyrical connections between atmospheres — as when an underwater sequence, seen from a different angle, looks like creatures are swimming through the sky — or just revels in a stunning vista altered by the characters’ ability to transform themselves and the world around them.
It may be a convoluted yarn, but there are pockets of grace when it comes to Liang’s and Zhang’s sincere evocation of the responsibility behind stewardship of our and others’ souls, and a belief in sacrifice as it relates to love and death, even our relationship to the environment. (And having spent over a decade painstakingly turning a personal project into a feature-length reality, Liang and Zhang clearly know a thing or two about nurturing something beloved into existence.)
The story is ultimately defined by the trade-offs its mythical beings make that give life to some at the expense of others, and those spiritually affirming decisions eventually take pride of place amidst the overwhelming campaign of climactic set pieces (namely, the threatened destruction of Chun’s world) that dominate the second half.
Chinese animation is still feeling its way into the industry, but “Big Fish & Begonia,” with its big-canvas approach to myth, world-building, wonder and fragile humanity, announces itself as if cinema was more than ready for it.