What could have been China’s Spirited Away is a poorly paced and bloated waste of potential…
In a world parallel to – or more accurately, beneath – this one live several races of magical humanoids. Children existing on this plane face a right-of-passage ritual upon reaching the age of sixteen. They must travel through the sky via a vortex, assume the shape of a “fish” [sic. they turn into dolphins], and spend a week observing the human world. On no account must they interact with any humans. Chun (Guanlin Ji) is one such girl who, having said goodbye to her family and childhood friend Qiu (Shangqing Su), transforms into a red dolphin and ascends to the human plane. From her aquatic vantage point, Chun witnesses sights both wondrous (a lantern festival) and horrific (regular grey dolphins caught in the net of a fishing vessel). On the shore, a young man and his sister are fascinated by the red dolphins that appear once a year. During a storm, they are alarmed to see one of these dolphins (Chun) trapped in a net next to a whirlpool. The man fearlessly dives in to save her, but is knocked unconscious and pulled under. He lies drowning on the ocean floor, but Chun can do nothing except take his treasured dolphin shaped ocarina. Distraught, she returns through the vortex to her magical homeland.
If the above reads like the entire plot synopsis then fear not. All this takes place in the opening 20 minutes of Big Fish & Begonia: a fantasy animation from Chinese writer-directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun (a Chinese-Korean co-production).
Still to come are Orpheus-like journeys to the resting place of souls, the illicit raising of a magical fish, and a looming threat of environmental catastrophe. And herein lies Big Fish & Begonia’s key problem. The overload of narrative material (sufficient for 3 or 4 films) results in a panicky rush to stuff everything into the running time. Scenes fly by so rapidly that often they simply don’t register; characters pop-up, disappear, pass away, and vanish without the audience being able to remember names, let alone form any lasting attachment to them. Attempts to build pathos or peril are instantly dispersed, as we know that the next set-piece or colourful character is imminent. When the climactic scenes arrive, the pace suddenly relaxes to a near-catatonic state. A romantic subplot is conjured out of thin air and proceeds interminably into an endless farewell. This may have felt less conspicuous had the previous action not been so hyperactive, but the contrast is so great as to make the denouement feel exhaustingly saggy and baggy.
Big Fish & Begonia needs to calm down. It’s far from the worst film playing at the London Film Festival this year, but it might be the most frustrating. There are so many beautiful moments, delightful character designs, striking musical motifs, and potentially impactful themes hidden in this mess, but only brief snatches of these are ever glimpsed. Stunning long-shots of the magical realm last mere seconds, meaning that we are never allowed to take pleasure in simply being in the world – an essential aspect of any fantasy film. A flood is conjured that makes the deluge in Aronofsky’s Noah look like a puddle, but by that point I had no investment in the fate of this world and its inhabitants. The gatekeeper to the resting place of souls (a library) is a masked demon who plays mah-jong with shape-shifting cats, and smokes plucked stick-insects. I feel that more confident filmmakers could have extracted so much more out of this intriguing character and location than in the brief minutes of screen time given here. Similarly, a rat-like woman tending Pied-Piper-like to a horde of vinyl playing vermin (the souls of the damned) is given a faint sketch of a subplot only to be forgotten about later.
I expect that, given the Alice in Wonderland qualities of both films, Big Fish & Begonia will be marketed as a Chinese Spirited Away. But Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece succeeds precisely where Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun fail: by letting you revel in the world he creates. The near-wordless and lengthy train scene in Spirited Away is a favourite of mine because time is taken to establish the train as a key part of the fantasy world. The audience is then granted a relaxed duration to enjoy the train ride along with the characters. Spirited Away is packed with ideas and flights-of-fancy, but it never demonstrates Big Fish & Begonia’s anxiety of having to struggle through the film as fast as possible.
Given this squandered potential, I’m hopeful that Xuan and Chun will create something marvellous in the future. They will have to relax a bit first though.