Big Fish and Begonia
The Others live in a magical land beneath the ocean of our world. As part of their coming of age, they spend a week in our world, transformed into dolphins, but they are carefully warned to avoid all contact with humans. During her pilgrimage to our world, an Other named Chun is rescued from peril by a young human male, but she accidentally contributes to his subsequent death. Wracked by guilt- and maybe interested for other reasons as well- Chun journeys to the land of the Soulkeeper, who has charge of all virtuous human souls (they're transformed into fish.) She buys the soul of her rescuer, and names him "Kun". But trying to keep him with her leads to disaster, for the presence of a human soul damages the very structure of her land, and she has to make some seemingly impossible choices.
While quite a bit of anime work is subcontracted to China, this is the first one I've encountered that's a completely Chinese production. In many ways it's a knockoff of Miyazaki's style, but it's a GLORIOUS knockoff. It's advertised as being "12 years in the making", apparently because it took that long for filmmakers Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang to raise the funds to complete it (per Wiki.) The whole thing got launched from a short film they did (it's included in the DVD package), though it's more correct to say (as the box copy does) that the short film "inspired" the feature-length movie- the latter is NOT just a simple expansion of the former (they're quite a bit different.)
In any case, if they were short on funds, it doesn't show in the finished product, which is absolutely gorgeous: there's some spectacular 3DCG; "clean" character art; an impressive variety of background scenery; loads of vibrant color (especially reds and oranges); and lavish depictions of traditional Chinese costumes and architecture. (I think the film sometimes is so eager to show off that it hurts the pacing a bit- some of the action/disaster sequences seemed to me to be prolonged to the point of losing some of their effectiveness.) But, again, the show often tends to that slavish imitation of Miyazaki. For one thing, it's filled with the sort of oddball creatures and characters that Miyazaki liked to fill the corners of his films with (and sometimes also put front and center, of course); the "ferryman" here ("ferrything" is a much more apt description) for one; and the Soulkeeper has an opposite number, in charge of the "evil" souls (who become mice/rats), a grotesque crone with an agenda of her own who in many ways reminded me of such Miyazaki baddies as Spirited Away's Yubaba.
But the main reservation I had about giving this movie a full five stars is its treatment of one of its major characters, who literally gets dumped on near the beginning, and that's just the merest portent of things to come. Despite being brave, loyal, and even generous when the character's own self-interest would have been much better served by some selfishness, this individual was true to the end (OK, granted, with an extremely temporary lapse or two)- and yet that end consisted of THREE horrible indignities, in rapid succession. Someone who watched this with me was reminded of A Tale of Two Cities. I was reminded a bit of Oscar Wilde's literally heartbreaking story The Nightingale and the Rose, though in fairness the beneficiaries of the magnanimous acts here were not quite as unworthy as those in Wilde's tale. But still, going to the edge (and beyond) out of unrequited (indeed, here unrequitable) love for another certainly CAN be considered noble- yet one can't avoid the gut feeling that doing so under these circumstances is also choosing to be a sucker, a chump, a fool. My fellow viewer (who's much more pragmatic than I) certainly found the character to be simply foolish; I'm a bit more conflicted about it, since, again, the beneficiaries aren't unworthy of the gesture. But I still hated this turn of events. I rather prefer that even the "losers", if well-meaning and loyal, at least be left with the possibility of a happy future. And maybe the fact that the show made me so unsettled and conflicted, in my own feelings about the ethics of such a situation, didn't help. In the end here it's the supernatural authorities that seem to come out the best, for good AND ill; and the Soulkeeper in particular, who despite his non-human appearance, acts like an irascible old man, but who's actually a heartless pawnbroker ("I'm just a businessman"), is the person who seems to most clearly get his wish, when all the bargains are struck.
I know I'm making it sound like a downer, but there may indeed be a happy ending- for some. I'm just a person who sympathizes with the folks who struggled mightily in the cause of virtue and yet nevertheless lost their chances- ANY chances. It's still a feast for the eyes, and quite the odyssey for its cast (even though some scenes, as noted, go on a little long); the ballad "Big Fish" is also very beautiful (it's accessible as a separate music video on the DVD as well.) By the way, the "Begonia" reference in the title refers to Chun's particular magic, which is to instantly grow trees- something that proves more useful than you might expect. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Non-explicit nudity, perilous situations (including self-sacrifice.)
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Big Fish and Begonia © B&T Studio
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