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Big Fish & Begonia (2016)

When you think of great animation producing nations, it's unlikely that China will be among the first to spring to mind. However, the country has a rich history of animation that dates back to the 1920's. After years of being overshadowed by their overseas counterparts, recent years have seen something of a resurgence in China's animation scene.

Big Fish & Begonia is one of the Chinese industry's recent success stories, and now in 2018 it makes its way West, via Manga Entertainment in the UK, and Shout Factory/Funimation in the US. Taking 12 years to complete, and partially crowdfunded, Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang's feature went on to gross over $85 million in China alone.

The film introduces us to a parallel world populated by The Others, beings who control time, tides and the changing of the season. The sky of their world is connected to the sea of the human world, and once a year, all the young Others who have turned 16 embark on a week-long journey through a gateway (transformed into dolphins) to experience the human world for themselves. The film's main character, Chun is one such teenager. In the human world, she runs into trouble, saved by a kindly human who sacrifices himself in the process. Back in her own world, Chun discovers a way to return him to life- but it's not going to be easy.

This film shows off some first-rate world building. Although not apparently based on any specific Chinese mythology it feels as if it easily could have been, with a timeless sense of authenticity. Neither in the Otherworld or the human realm does the film really tie itself to a specific time period, but the fantasy world is clearly modelled on Chinese traditions. We spend very little time in the human world, but The Otherworld, complete with its rules and traditions is richly drawn and absorbing.

It has to be said that this film owes a considerable debt to the work of Studio Ghibli. Its premise is one that is very much in the vein of Ghibli's most fantastical works, and tonally it feels similar. The beautiful backgrounds, strange creatures and sequences evoking a sense of wonder come straight out of the legendary Japanese studio's playbook. There's more direct parallels too, like a sequence that recalls My Neighbour Totoro's magical tree growth.. and was that Spirited Away's radish spirit we spied? It sure looked a lot like him!

Inviting comparisons with arguably the greatest animation studio on earth is touching on dangerous ground as it can't help but fall short. The film has a pretty appealing visual style (again with a heavy Japanese influence) but is not as slick as the best in theatrical 2D animation. The use of CG is a mixed bag- sometimes well integrated, sometimes less so -see the 3D whales at the film's opening for an example of the latter. These are likely a symptom of the film's relatively modest budget (estimated at under $5 million), but are unlikely to spoil your experience too much.

Despite the heavy influences from abroad, the film's Chinese origins still help produce a film that feels distinctive and somewhat fresh. The story structure is somewhat unusual, and while the plot is occasionally messy and undisciplined it's at least full of surprises. It does feel a bit overlong,  (and overstuffed) however.

The film features a fairly serious, even melodramatic tone for most of it, peppered with some occasionally unexpected (and usually toilet-based ) humour that seems to come out of nowhere. Such tonal shifts are common in much of East-Asian cinema, so it's less surprising if you watch a lot of it.

Noone could fault the filmmakers for ambition, and we'd take a film that aims for something great and falls a little short over one that doesn't try any day of the week. There's more invention and imagination here than found in most of last year's mainstream animation releases combined. It's not quite a home run, but for a first feature it's very impressive- and unquestionably marks out Liang and Zhang as talents to watch.

Make sure to stay for the credits- as there's a mid-credits scene that you won't want to miss.

FORMATSUK Cinemas from April 18,
US Cinemas now
FROM Manga UK/ Shout Factory
1hr 45m

Find a UK screening here.

IN A NUTSHELL:  Beautifully animated and wildly inventive, this promises a bright future for China's animation industry.

*screener provided by Manga Entertainment*