Movie Review: Chinese animated “Big Fish & Begonia” loses something in translation

 

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Let us now plumb the mysteries and parse the meaning of a Chinese animated film.

No, I’m not returning to the subject of “Rock Dog.”

But animation can be a fascinating window on a culture. Think of your first encounters with French animated films, or anime. God help you if “Spirited Away” was your opening exposure to the works of Hiyao Miyazaki.

“Big Fish & Begonia” has the feel of an animated Chinese folk tale, even though it isn’t. A story of souls traveling from the Netherworld to Earth, transitioning into Big Fish in the Sky, a Mistress of the Flowers (the “Begonia” of the title), it is a puzzle without a particularly interesting (to my Western eyes) solution.

Whatever its visual qualities, and really the only comparison points are the weirder Japanese anime efforts, the strangeness of it all makes it a confusing big screen experience.

“Some fish belong to the sky,” we’re told (in Chinese, with English subtitles). And the biggest fish of all is a spirit animal, Kun, who lives in the Northern Sea. “Each human being is a giant fish in the sea.” Actually, a mammal.

Our narrator is 117 years old, and ponders “Why are we here?” as she revisits her past and reveals a world where spirits venture onto Earth as fish — or more exactly, dolphins and whales.

Chun, a girl from the spirit world, makes such a journey through the maelstrom when she turns 16.

“Avoid all contact with humans,” Grandfather lectures. “That is the absolute Rule of the Heavens.”

But as a dolphin, she is trapped in a net and faces the grim fate of a the other dolphins she’s seen trapped in a fisherman’s net — bleeding and suffocating.

But a handsome young man on shore won’t let his baby sister see this awful sight and dives in and after much struggle, frees Chun.

He drowns. She makes it her quest to find a way to bring him back to life, even if he has to come back as a…you guessed it — “Big Fish.” Actually a teensy, tiny mammal. She must nurture this baby fish until it grows up into “Kun,” a narwhal.

There’s a hint of “The Little Mermaid” in the story, as Chun is plainly smitten and willing to bargain with Grandfather of the Endless Beard, Grandmother the Giant Bird, talking idols, ride flying horses, or squid gondoliers and ring the bell necessary to bring back the dead.

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It’s almost as quotable as a Confucius collection — “Where there’s life, there is death.” “Sins of the past have no remedy.” You won’t find that in a fortune cookie.

But what sticks with you are the images — whales in the clouds, dolphins in peril and dying, visual invention at every turn.

It’s not enough to make “Big Fish & Begonia” worth recommending. Perhaps the cultural chasm is too wide, in this instance, for anyone not Chinese to find a connection and see profundity in what plays like a fever dream, too personal to be accessible.

Still, that’s an argument nobody bothered to make with “Rock Dog.” With Hollywood falling all over itself to make movies and figure out “What the Chinese want,” “Big Fish & Begonia” is a sobering reminder of the gulf that exists between Western storytelling traditions and the still-mysterious East.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements and brief nudity

Cast: The voices of Guanlin JiTimmy XuShangqing SuShulan Pan

Credits:Directed by  Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang, script by Xuan Liang. A Shout! Factory release.

Running time: 1:44

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