‘Big Fish & Begonia’: An Animated Poetry of Love, Sacrifice and Loss

By Tracy Wang

Twelve years in the making, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’, a Chinese artful indie animated feature, is set to hit US cinemas on April 11th. Written, produced and directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, this animated feature grossed around 90 million dollars in China, when it was originally released in 2016. Based on the Taoist classic, Zhuangzi, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ creates a visual feast of the story of a girl named Chun, who is set to save and protect a soul of a boy who died saving her in the human world.

At the bottom of the ocean, there lives a group of people called ‘the others’, who are the protector of human souls and the nature order of lives. At the age of 16, when they reach adulthood, everyone is sent to the human world as red dolphins to learn about what they have been protecting. Chun, at 16, transforms into a red dolphin, and wanders in the ocean and river to observe the human world.

On the first day as a dolphin, she meets a boy and his little sister, and a bond is formed. When she is set to go home on the seventh day, she is accidentally entangled in a wide net; hearing the dolphin’s scream, the boy rushes out into the ocean to save her. As she struggles, she accidentally pushes him toward the direction of the whirlpool, and he dies.

Back at home, she embarks on a journey to save the boy’s life. At the soulkeeper’s palace, she bargains with him to get the boy’s life back. In exchange of his soul, she gives away half of her lifespan. With their souls and lives intertwined, Chun needs to protect the boy’s soul, now a little dolphin named Kun, from all other dangers, till it grows up and is ready to go back to the human world. However, Chun’s bargain entails some serious consequences to their world under the sea. How will she be able to save Kun, while also protecting her people?

The tone of the film remains true to Chinese culture in its choice of clothing, its choice of color, and the abundance of Chinese lores and myths. We enter into a fictional world that is familiar and yet strange, and it will surely become a gateway for the audiences in the United States to understand more of the Chinese culture. However, as fascinating as the lores are, the abundance of the myths and references could be overwhelming at times.

‘Big Fish & Begonia’ can be said to be the pioneer of China’s animation industry; from the beginning of the film with some big fish swimming across a layer of clouds, to the end of the film when Kun is floating in the sea, we witness revolutionary animated visual, which takes us right to the bottom of the ocean with Chun. Though every scene acquires a rather simple and light palette, which vividly paints a world seemingly focused on the lightness of color pencils, for the ninety minutes of the film, we temporarily and blissfully forget the world that we live in, the human world in which dolphins are hunted and killed.

The visual feast enchants us every minute of the film, but what attracts us the most is the purity of hearts of its characters. From the very start, we get a Chun, who is willing to sacrifice anything to save Kun, and a Kun who does not hesitate when it comes to save a dolphin. The bond between the little dolphin that grows a bit everyday and the girl who controls the growth of flowers touches our hearts, and their willingness in doing anything to stay together reminds us of a long lost friendship or romance. However, the most shocking scene comes when Qiu, Chun’s best friend, sacrifices himself in order for her to be able to leave their world and go live with Kun in the human world.

In the character of Qiu, we find a naughty boy who doesn’t seem to care about anything in the world, but the only person who is always on his heart is Chun, a girl who rarely looks his way. His love for her is quiet, gentle and boundless, and watching these three characters caring for each other with the purest of hearts, we are lost in the whirlpool of emotions, mainly the shock in seeing such goodness and purity in them.

Living in a world where violence, discrimination and prejudice happen every single day, we are used to seeing all kinds of tragic events on the news. Our eardrums are constantly bombarded with tragedies, but ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ acts as a relief in this chaotic world. For the ninety minutes, we temporarily forget the constant noise and buzz of the world, and for that period of time, we are shown what greatness humans are capable of, and we are reminded of the right way to cherish the ones we love.

Filled to the brim with Chinese lores, and characters with such pure hearts, the film does not fail to leave us with some life lessons that sound like gentle whispers, and some more homework in reflecting on what we are going to do in the limited times we have in life.

A revolutionary animation from China, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ is set to catch audience’s’ eyes as well as their hearts. Enchanting in its tone, pure in its characters, and inspiring in its messages, ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ paints a world in contrast to the human world we inhabit; that world does not lack of the sense of right and wrong, the consequences of actions and the inevitable price of trade, but it dazzles us with its abundance of goodness and virtue in its characters, and asks us to live boldly, to love, and to dream.