China's Answer to Studio Ghibli Is a Stunning Modern Fairy Tale

Citing Hayao Miyazaki, the Coen brothers, and Ang Lee as influences, the creators of 'Big Fish and Begonia' want to make the best animated films in China.

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Apr 6 2018, 8:15am

Big Fish and Begonia, Chinese animators Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun’s blockbuster debut, is packed to the brim with enchanting moments. Magic-fueled flowers sprout and bloom in seconds. The sky connects to earth via a flying whirlpool. A girl floats into the air to dance with a winged fish. The first film from their new company, Bobo and Toto, also has awkwardly funny moments that would never make the cut at Disney, Pixar, or Studio Ghibli. It’s hard not to laugh five minutes into the film when a horse shits directly onto a child’s head. It took home $89 million at the box office in China, making it the country’s highest-grossing fully animated film of the year, and it’s coming to American theaters on April 6.

The film, which has been 12 years in the making, follows a teenage girl named Chun into a realm with a sky that connects to our world’s oceans. When young magic users come of age, they transform into sea creatures and explore the human world for a few days—the magical equivalent of backpacking Europe. In the form of a red dolphin, Chun gets caught in a net, and human boy drowns while saving her. When she returns home, Chun breaks the laws of nature to steal his soul, which has transformed into a tiny fish, from death. With the begrudging help of her best friend Qiu, she must raise the fish to adulthood in order to save his life, but he consequences tear her world apart. Watch and exclusive clip from the film below.

According to the directors, their visually arresting production signals a sea change for Chinese animation, which artistically and economically pales in comparison to American and Japanese powerhouses. At the very least, it’s a gorgeous take on the hero’s journey that infuses Hayao Miyazaki–style fantasy with Chinese traditions, culture, and values.

Liang names Miyazaki as one of the his primary influences. Big Fish and Begonia checks typical Miyazaki boxes like having a strong female lead and a fantastical take on classic folktales. Animation is generally trending toward more big-budget 3D CGI films, but like other independent animators inspired by Miyazaki, such as Usman Riaz, Liang and Zhang are dedicated to the hand-drawn animation style. He also cites live-action filmmakers like the Coen brothers, James Cameron, and Ang Lee, who are felt not only in the film’s adult themes, but also its creators’ talent for balancing artistic merit and commercial success.

While it screened at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, there’s no explain-like-I’m-five moral to be taken away from Big Fish and Begonia. Even when the characters are doing something good, it often comes at the expense of their community or their own well-being. On the surface, it’s similar to Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s 2003 tale of a girl who must adapt to a magical foreign land and save a man’s soul along the way. We spoke to the directors to parse their unfamiliar take on a kids’ movie and the process behind their exquisite animation style.

VICE: Big Fish and Begonia is ambitious for your first feature film. What is your training and experience as animators and directors?
Liang Xuan: Zhang Chun and I went to Tsinghua University, where I studied thermodynamics, and he studied art. The way we ended up making movies, I feel like it was completely destined to happen. I was 19 when we met. He was studying art, and we became friends.

I never took a liking to my major, so I gave up all the studies related to it, and only went to classes that I was interested in. I spent the rest of my time in the library to watch films. When I was a junior, I decided to not participate in a single exam, and started to create animation together with Chun.

After we started collaborating, we rented a house near the school. At the time, we actually didn’t know what we wanted to make, but the most important thing every month was paying rent for the apartment. We took part in a lot of commercial animation competitions, and our winnings from the competitions allowed us to continue. We usually finished in first place.

Big Fish and Begonia was originally a short film we made in 2004, and was also originally for a competition. The first prize for winning the competition was $12,600, and we thought that if we won, we’d be able to completely focus on our productions.

The original idea for this came from my dream. We gathered some friends together online and took about a month to create a seven-minute flash animation. A young girl receives a whale, and she raises it inside a cup, and all the while the whale continues to grow until only the sky is big enough to hold it.

We actually won first place in the competition, and our flash animation short had a sizable audience that supported it. We thought that we had to make it into a film one day. In March 2005, we founded our company B&T, and our goal was to make the best animated films in China.

We know that making an animated movie requires very high technical standards. So at first, we accumulated experience by doing some animated short films. In 2006, we made the animated short film Swallowtail, which had won three of the most significant awards in the Chinese animation industry. And because of this short film, we got the first investment to make Big Fish. In 2007, we began to create the test footage for our feature.

The film reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Was he one of your influences?
Miyazaki is an animation director that I like a great deal. When I first saw his work, I was surprised that this animation forefather’s films had so many imaginative ideas that were similar to what was in my own head. You have to remember, we have a 40-year age gap between us.

When I was little I read a lot of Western fairy tales, and Miyazaki mentioned in an interview that his work was deeply influenced by Western fairy tales like Gulliver’s Travels. When we did the short film version of Big Fish and Begonia in 2004, I was greatly influenced by The Little Mermaid, which is a fairy tale that I revere. Miyazaki’s Ponyo from 2008 was also a work that drew inspiration from The Little Mermaid.

How did he and other filmmakers influence you?
The Coen brothers knocked on countless doors to ask people to invest in their debut feature, which was almost like an early version of crowd-funding. Miyazaki took six years to finish Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to prove himself to the people around him. We also took a long period of time to progress and mature. I like Ang Lee. I feel like his movies maintain an artistic sensibility while also achieving commercial success. So I hope our movies can achieve a similar result.

How does your work represent Chinese values?
There are many ancient literary classics in China, such as Zhuangzi and The Classic of Mountains and Seas, and other myths that have been passed down from generation to generation. There’s so much to learn from them. These stories are full of mysterious and magical elements, and we hope to produce new interpretations and presentations of these ancient words through the language of the film.

The reason why these myths and literary classics have a history of thousands of years is because they contain some universal values for different societies or mankind as a whole. The protection of life, the yearning for freedom and so on. So even after thousands of years, they can still resonate with people today.

What lesson should we take from Chun’s and Qiu’s behavior? Both are simultaneously self-sacrificing and selfish. Help me understand the moral message behind the film.
Chun is more of a protector toward the big fish. She feels like she killed a brave, kind-hearted boy, and so she’s driven by guilt to go and save him. This sort of idea is actually an act of goodwill.

But when she’s faced with the sky falling apart, Chun is merely a 16-year-old child, and lacks ability. She finally chooses to sacrifice herself, and turns into a giant begonia tree to plug the hole in the sky in order to save everyone.

Qiu’s soul is the leaf, and Chun’s soul is the begonia flower. And just like how leaves fall down to the roots to nourish a tree, everything that Qiu does for Chun is a sort of protection. Both of them are very pure. In reality, people always worry a great deal when they’re doing things, and purity is a very rare quality.

We need to face many choices and pay the resulting consequences in our lives. But you can never predict the future right now. Chun has no idea that she’ll cause her family and her people such a huge catastrophe when she releases Kun. But she has the courage to face the truth and take responsibility to make up for it, and that’s already good enough. We’re not like God who can see and understand everyone's values and choices. Unless you become them, which would be the only way to know whether you would make the same choice as others and be brave enough to take responsibility for whatever happens. It’s always easy to blame others. But the most difficult part is what choice you’re going to make when disaster happens to you, and that’s the key thing.

Big Fish has visuals that would never make it into a children’s movie in the US. How is your approach to movies for children different in China than in the United States?
In the eyes of the adults, Big Fish might be a story about freedom and protection. But children’s thinking is actually more naive. In their perspective, it might be a fairy tale about a big fish returning home.

There is no film rating system in China. So the choosing which movie Chinese children can watch depends greatly on their own choice along with their parents.

Did you have to change the film at all due to censorship from the Chinese government or media institutions?
Zhang Chun: During the storyboard stage, we had to consider the issue of censorship. So [in the final scene, in which Chun appears naked] there were two shells painted on to cover the lead female character’s chest. But at the production stage, we got rid of the shells because we thought the effect was more appropriate for the scene. In the end, we managed to pass censorship in China, and no modification was needed. We were all super excited when that got approved.

Why is this film so popular in China?
Liang: The Chinese animation industry is at the beginning of a huge growth period. In the past, Chinese animation had a brilliant history. We have ink animation classics such as Where Is Mama? (1960), and feature animations like Havoc in Heaven (1965). But Chinese animation has been developing slowly in the last few decades, and gradually it lost its ability to compete on a bigger stage. There is a big gap between Chinese animation and American and Japanese animation. When we had just entered the animation industry, the Chinese animation market was very small and almost everyone thought that animation was only for children. People didn’t believe in the quality of Chinese animations, so no one was willing to invest in meaningful projects. With economic development, mainstream moviegoers under 30 have been exposed to more content and grew up with animated films. That means the young local audience is looking forward to more Chinese animations coming out.

In 2004, we made the Flash animated short film version of Big Fish, which got a significant view count and received lots of attention online. From 2007 to 2009, we worked on the test footage for a feature film version of Big Fish, and got a lot of awards and attention from that. There were a lot of talented artists working together during the production of the test footage, and many of them later became elite artists in the local animation industry. At that time, a domestic animation that strived for such high quality was a novelty for the audience, and everyone hoped that it could be made into a movie one day. But no one had faith in the Chinese animation market at that time. Big Fish received investment from Enlight Media in 2013, when the film project was restarted. Finally, our film had a chance to meet the audience in 2016.

What’s next for you?
We’re working on the sequel to Big Fish and Begonia, and are currently in the pre-production phase. In the future, we’ll work on other fantasy or sci-fi animated films.

Big Fish and Begonia hits American theaters on April 6, 2018.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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