Big Fish & Begonia is an anime-like Chinese production, packed with powerful themes and messages about life, death and reincarnation.
|Director||Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun|
|Studio||Beijing Enlight Media, Biantian (Beijing) Media, Studio Mir|
|Genre||Fantasy, drama, romance|
I know nothing about Chinese animation—which is not too surprising, considering how small the industry is at China. Especially in a country like the United States, you’re not going to get a whole lot of news on animation aside those from North America, Japan or sometimes Europe. So really, your best bet to discovering other foreign animations is the power of the Internet itself.
And so, that is how I came to discover a movie like Big Fish & Begonia, a visually stunning movie right from its teaser trailers.
Where do I begin with this? I got strong Hayao Miyazaki vibes here, but we’re clearly not dealing with Japanese anime. Probably the better term here would be donghua, the Mandarin term for “animation.” Though oddly enough, Studio Mir (a South Korean animation studio known for Avatar: The Legend of Korra and Voltron: Legendary Defender) was also on board.
Anyways, Big Fish & Begonia had a troubled history. The original concept started off as a short Flash animation by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun published in May 2004. After receiving a lot of positive feedback, the two decided to adapt it into a feature-length film. But the main problem with getting the movie on its feet was funding. In 2007, their studio received some money. In 2009, the script finished but the money ran out. And so, the project was placed on hiatus until June 2013, when Liang Xuan posted the movie on Chinese social media site Weibo. And so, the movie got the rest of its funding and aired in China’s movie theaters.
And of course, it became a massive hit. With a budget of 30 million yuan (over 4.5 million U.S. dollars), its box office gross became 565 million yuan (nearly 85 million U.S. dollars). As of now, it’s one of the most successful Chinese animated films in the world—beaten by Kung Fu Panda 3 and Monkey King: Hero is Back in the box office. The mid-2010s may very well be the “dawn of Chinese animation.” A risky venture turned into major success.
And we are going to examine this prized turkey. This is Big Fish & Begonia.
So to make sure I understand the story, I’m relying on a fan translation by flycrane01. Thanks for learning one of the hardest languages in the world so that we can enjoy a beautifully animated movie.
Big Fish & Begonia starts off with some quotes and a long monologue by our protagonist, who is now a 117-year old woman.
Some fish aren’t meant to be caged because they belong to the sky.
In the Northern Ocean there is a fish that goes by the name of Kun. Its size is too large to measure.
If those stretch out your brain cells, wait until you get a load of this.
Who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Nobody cares about these questions. Every day, people just go to work, smile at each other, buy things, eat, and sleep. One hundred years have passed. I am already 117 years old. Many times I have told them that each living human being is a giant fish in the sea, and that human life is just like swimming across the sea. But they never listened to me, saying that I’ve gone senile. However, every time I dream, I can see very clearly many big fish falling from the sky and hear them calling to each other. Their beautiful voices remind me of my past.
4.5 billion years ago, on this planet, there was nothing but water and some big old fish that were the souls of human beings. In fact, since their birth, they have never forgotten their origins. My name is Chun. I come from the undersea world. The sky of my abode is connected to the sea of the human world. Human souls wander in their world for a long time before they reach the end of the sea and the sky of this world. We are guardians of human souls and the laws of nature in the world. We are neither human beings nor gods, but the Others.
Whew… as long as it is and I’m normally against a wall of exposition, I’m glad we got this prologue. I’m not terribly familiar with Chinese mythology and philosophy.
As we’ve seen from the trailer, the art and animation are just absolutely gorgeous. A lot of imagery of unique creatures, the sea, stormy skies and expressive characters. And it’s further heightened by the Chinese architecture and landscapes. I’ve actually been wanting to see more of this kind of imagery since watching Disney’s Mulan, And hopefully with the success of Big Fish & Begonia, we’ll see more animated masterpieces from China.
The story follows the tale of a young girl named Chun (“chun-tian”, meaning spring), a magical being who lived in a spiritual world beyond the sea. At the age of 17, she must follow a rite of passage (along with other children) to travel to the human world and return to the spirit world within seven days, via maelstrom. To accomplish this, they must take the form of a red dolphin and travel the oceans while observing the world around them. But to maintain their safety, they must avoid humans.
Along her travels, Chun encounters a boy and his little sister, who were out enjoying life at the coast. For a while, she observed them and took fascination with humans. But on the seventh day, Chun attempts to return to her home on a stormy night, only to get caught in a net. The same boy she encountered came to rescue her, but she accidentally pushed him into the maelstrom, costing him his life.
Chun, feeling guilty over the boy’s death, returns to the spirit world and searches for a way to save him, however she can. A sentient lion statue directed her to the Soul Keeper, a peculiar cyclops who is willing to resurrect a life for a price. Chun decided to give up half of her life to resurrect the boy, who took on the form of an adorable, Digimon-esque baby dolphin. She must raise him long enough to allow him to reincarnate in the human world.
Chun’s best friend Qiu (“qiu-tian”, meaning autumn) decided to help her raise this baby dolphin, who they decided to name Kun (after the Leviathan-esque fish that can change form into a giant bird called Peng, as mentioned in Chinese mythology). However, Chun’s attempt to violate the laws of nature brings in massive consequences…
And the rest is pretty much “A Boy and His X” story with a bit of tragedy in it. Or in this case, a girl and her magical soul dolphin/whale thing.
Life, Death and Reincarnation
This bears repeating. But by god, everything looks so beautiful in this movie. The usage of vivid colors and unique imagery that only China could provide also help. I had compared the movie to Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but I would also bring up some of Disney’s best traditionally animated works. The art and animation are by far the movie’s strongest point.
While the story does take a predictable turn, there are moments when the movie requires more thought and knowledge. But as it turns out, it takes some understanding of Chinese mythology and some symbolism to fully appreciate Big Fish & Begonia. On my part, I did some additional research to help interpret some of the movie’s themes.
The movie was inspired by the Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text that is fundamental to understanding Daoism. It contains an anthology of stories that challenge logic and reasoning using absurdity and anti-rationalism. The point of the text is to represent constant change and spontaneity of the universe. By restricting ourselves with politics and social norms, we are distancing ourselves from true happiness. Because to live in spontaneity is happiness itself.
You can see some of these kinds of themes in Big Fish & Begonia. The boy and the sister at the beginning were living a relatively carefree life at the sea. When the boy’s life abruptly ended, Chun decided to sacrifice half of her lifespan to help reincarnate him. But in doing so, Chun ended up messing with the natural order of the real world. While the movie doesn’t explicitly say it, Chun’s world flooded with seawater because of Kun’s presence in her world.
The movie deals with the cycle of life and death, which we got some commentary about from Chun’s grandfather. Death is simply a natural progression, no matter how abrupt it is. Even though your life ends, you will live on in some other way, as part of Earth’s soil, the rain or the winds.
Chun willingly violated the law of death, at a grander cost than she anticipated. Her own sacrifice led to more sacrifices. Her best friend Qiu (who was in love with her) gave up his entire life to restore Chun’s own lost lifespan. Chun’s peers and even her own mother condemned her for her actions. She even sacrificed her own magical abilities, rendering her to an average human being with a longer-than-average lifespan.
But in the end, Chun found happiness in the human world. Her grandfather encouraged her to follow her heart, even if it means breaking free of societal norms.
Qiu, on the other hand, cannot be together with Chun. In the epilogue, the Soul Keeper resurrected Qiu, intending to make the young man his successor. Then we got the ending text:
In ancient history there was a tree called Ta-khun, whose spring (Chun) was 8000 years, and its autumn (Qiu) the same.
While I tried to look up info about Ta-khun (and found nothing, sadly), I did notice something interesting. And furthermore, I noticed some small details in the movie.
Our two leads were named after seasons, for one. After the 30-minute mark, Chun mentioned she was named by her mother, in hopes that Chun can inherit her job in the future. And that job is seeing to the growth of begonias. We later see her restoring life to some flowers, only for Qiu to cause them to wilt.
This shows that both Chun and Qiu are literally the personifications of the two seasons: spring and autumn. Additionally, life and death. In spring, flowers bloom. In autumn, flowers wilt. The epilogue further supports this with the Soul Keeper resurrecting Qiu to make him the new Soul Keeper. And by extension, Qiu will be responsible for the dead.
I also noticed that Qiu’s grandmother was also named Qiu, meaning it’s custom that these otherworldly beings inherit the names of their parents. The future occupations of the children were already decided the moment when they were born, meaning there’s little room for individualism in this society.
Interestingly, I found that the general symbolism of begonias represent misfortunes and challenges, caution of new situations, and individuality. And I can see all of these themes present in the movie.
In a way, it’s already decided how Chun and Qiu’s relationship will turn out. Qiu confessed his love for Chun later in the movie, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. She only saw him as an older brother figure. As much as it breaks Qiu’s heart, he still loves Chun. He sacrificed even more of himself, just so Chun could be happy. And this results in a tragic ending, where Chun loses a beloved friend.
Qiu’s willingness to take heavy risks for the one he loves is further reflected in his monologue:
Whose love do you think you’ve been receiving? It is the love of a God! He betrayed all Gods, out of love for you. He suffered countless pains and brought you happiness.
The differences between them are day and night. The two (spring and autumn) are literally worlds apart, which is why they can’t stay together. It’s a classic tragedy. Big Fish & Begonia is more than a movie about a girl raising an unusual pet. It is a visual metaphor about the progression of life, and by extension Daoism. As Chun herself puts it, “Human life is just like swimming across the sea.” Both Chun and Qiu made costly sacrifices to ensure their own happiness, which further distanced them from their society. But if more individuality leads to their own true happiness, then why not just follow your heart?
Big Fish & Begonia is definitely more of an adult film than a kid film. Not to sound pretentious, but there’s a level of sophistication here that one must grasp in order to fully enjoy this flick. Aside from that, this is a movie definitely worth checking out for anyone who loves anime or any animation in general. It’s very unlikely that there will be an official dub, so your only option is to watch this subbed.
Big Fish & Begonia
- Some very stunning animation that is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki's work and the best of Disney traditional animation.
- Bright and striking colors mixed with Chinese architecture, landscapes and mythological lore.
- A thematic story on life and death.
- A pleasant musical score.
- The story's quick pacing and allusions to Chinese philosophy may cause the movie to feel too densely packed at times.