Long Reads: Big Fish and Begonia: an examination of the human soul.
Warning: Spoilers for Big Fish and Begonia are contained within. If you haven’t watched the film, I strongly suggest you do so before reading this article.
Who are we? Where do we come from? and here are we going? (laugh) No one thinks about these questions. We go to work, day in and day out, we laugh, we complain, we buy things, we eat and we sleep.Chun, Big Fish and Begonia.
Somehow a century has already gone by, I am one hundred and seventeen years old now. As I often tell people the legend says that mankind came from the ocean and that when our lives journey as human beings is done, our souls return to the sea as beuatiful fish.
No one believes me when I tell this story. They call me an old fool, but I know its true. I can see them in my dreams – giant fish swimming down from the sky, I can hear them calling out to me and their lovely voices awaken my memories.
Big Fish and Begonia is a strange tale about consequences, sacrifices and connection. The opening lines are a premise to the story that will unfold. The influence of Shakespeares’ Romeo and Juliet is felt throughout the film, and its affinity with Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is difficult to miss. But whereas those works focus on growing up (Chihiro) or reconciling ones feeling with where you come from (Romeo and Juliet), Big Fish and Begonia takes these questions and ruthlessly shows us consequences of choice. We are given no clear villain or evil to face. There is no purely good character either. Instead, we are given characters that can only be described as flawed. Chun is motivated by guilt. Qiu by his unrequited love of Chun. Both are mostly oblivious to the path they are walking and the tragedy that will befall them.
Big fish and Begonia starts with a 117-year-old Chun setting out her story. The story of a single choice she made when she was sixteen that changed her fate. We are introduced to the world of Chun and her people. They are not gods, but nor are they human. These supernatural beings control the elements of the human world, each gifted with influence in a certain aspect. One of the first others we encounter is Sister Leizu, who is said to weave a new sky for the human world. Her woven cloth is thrown across a lake, which swiftly changes to a night sky. We see an elderly woman and a young boy dancing on a balcony while clouds shift and move to their movements. And yet, while the world we are introduced to is steeped in magic and wonder and the supernatural it is also jarringly familiar, and intricately reminiscent of the spirit world from Spirited Away. We learn that Chun’s coming of age ceremony is due, that all children who reach sixteen in a given year are to go through a passage of rights and undertake a journey to the human world where they observe the effect they have there. Chun is warned by her slightly overbearing mother not to interact with humans, that it is dangerous and to ensure she keeps to the allotted time. It is clear that if she misses the deadline, she will be trapped in the human world forever. Chun makes this promise and having been transformed into a red dolphin crosses the boundary to the human world with her peers. She is shown up to this point as having a happy cheerful disposition, something that she will lose during her journey. Once she crosses the threshold we are introduced to the one we will come to know as Kun. Kun is a young boy who lives on the coast with his sister. His young sister remarks that the strange red dolphins have returned again, at the same time this year.
It is good to see you again…Kun and Jiu’er cal to the red dolphins
We follow Chun’s journey through the human world, she recites her wonder at seeing ships and fireworks. There is a scene of candles lit for the departed flowing out to sea, though Chun does not appear to realise their significance. It is a nice cultural flourish and a hint of the tragedy that is yet to come. On the final day, Chun returns to the sea where Kun and Jiu’er reside and it is here that the tragedy that underpins everything occurs. Chun gets caught in a fishing net while a storm rolls in, Kun, jumps in to save her, but in her panic, she makes his job harder. when he finally cuts her free she dives forward and knocks him into the currents of a whirlpool, where he is pulled under and eventually drowns. Chun surfaces and realises Kun has not returned and then goes in search of him, she finds his body, and unable to wake him takes his ocarina, a memento to give to his grieving sister. Unfortunately, Jiu’er is too distraught to notice the ocarina and instead pleads to have her brother back. She cannot be much older than five or six. With time running out and no other recourse, Chun returns to her world and while she arrives safely, the magnitude of her experience weighs down on her.
For Chun this is the turning point, the spindle on which her journey depends. We are shown her melancholy and her inability to accept Kun’s fate. She decides to visit the lady of souls.
I had made my choice and there was no turning back. The moment I stepped aboard that boat, I knew my destiny had changed forever.Chun, making her decision.
This is the turning point when the path of her life changes when she makes a decision without ever thinking of the consequences.
I know what you are trying to do Girl and it goes agains the laws of nature… The punishment is harsh for those who go against the laws of nature, so you should care.
I’ve been stuck here for eight hundred years and i’ve still not paid pennace for my sin – Don’t interupt -Let me tell you what real tragedy is – meeting someone you care about so much you forget yourself and make a mistake. So then you go back and you try to fix and make things right again and then you learn that fixing it is impossible. You can never undo the wrongs you’ve done.The lady of souls
This is the last challenge, the last warning before Chun makes the deal that will inevitably cause her ruin. Though the Lady of souls seems capricious, looking between the lines, it is easy to see she is actually trying to guide Chun away from the path she is treading. Her warning, however, falls on deaf ears and Chun proceeds. She bargains half of her life for the soul of Kun and we move into the heart of the themes that permeate Big fish & Begonia.
What would we give up? What sacrifice would we make for those we love? What are we willing to risk losing?
Half our Lives? Our family and friends and the world we know?
By the time we ask ourselves these things if we ask them, it is usually too late to matter.
We already know the answer
Chun willingly gives up half her life, never stopping to think of the pain it would cause her friends, her family or her people. She does not stop to consider the price of breaking the laws of nature, instead focuses only on restoring Kun to life. Given their brief encounter and that she was a dolphin at the time, it is difficult to comprehend that she loves Kun. Instead, for me, I see her motivated by the guilt she feels over his death. She is unable to accept his death, unable to accept that what happens was an unintended accident and unable to accept that she is partly to blame. The focus on Kun’s still-living sister is important as it sets the foundations for the path that Chun will follow.
But Big Fish and Begonia isn’t a film dominated by a single protagonist, it is a collection of characters each flawed in their own way. An overprotective mother, a friend who will do anything for the one he loves, but is unable to articulate his feelings, a grandfather that does not agree with his grandaughter’s decisions, but does not admonish her for them, instead choosing to support her. It is the flaws of the characters that make them so strong.
Qiu, Chun’s close friend has one of the most tragic stories within the film. He is introduced as a cheerful happy-go-lucky boy who supports Chun as she prepares for her coming of age initiation. When she returns he is one of the few who notice something is amiss, even going as far as following her to the lakeshore when she goes to see the lady of souls. Qiu supports Chun as she struggles to protect and hide Kun from the others, not because he believes what she is doing is right, but because he loves Chun enough to support her. As things slowly begin to unravel, he is a constant pillar of support to Chun, though Chun never really notices how much support she is being given. Qui’s biggest flaw is his inability to communicate how he really feels.
Do even you even know who’s in love with you? What he’s done for you? He’s forsaking everything, betraying everyone for your happinessQiu shouting into the storm.
Qius inability to communicate his feelings is partially what drives him towards tragedy. With no recourse to convince Chun, he barters the entirety of his life away in exchange for the return of half of Chun’s. He is motivated by seeking Chun’s happiness.
You young kids live life like a worthless rock you found by the road. While old hags like me have to wrack our brins trying to figure out how to live another day.The Lady of soul’s obbservation
Without Joy whats the point of a long life?Qui’s response to the Lady of Soul’s observation.
To Qui, a life without Chun would have no joy in it, and therefore what would be the point. This is his turning point, as with Chun, whose life course was irrecoverably changed the moment she visited the Lady of Souls. So too was his life changed in the same manner. In essence, The lady of souls is the lock that binds them to their path. There is no going back. And as the musical score swells. we begin to see the world of the others be consumed. It seems at this juncture, the gods if they exist have finally had enough. In Christian-Esque flooding of the world, we see the cost, the loss laid bare. This is the ramifications of Chun’s selfish decision to go against the laws of nature. With the balance off, the world itself teeters on the brink of collapse. The others have little choice but to abandon their attempt at destroying Kun and instead focus on leading their people to higher ground. This is where Chun comes to realise the true cost of her decision, the pain the anguish she has caused. She sees for the first time, that in going against the laws of nature, she has forsaken her friends, her family and her doomed her world. This is the cost and she is realising only too late.
A particularly poignant scene is one where Ting Mu, is thought lost in the flood. His younger sister is a sister is pleading to bring him back in the same way Kun’s sister did. When Chun tries to help her people, help them grow a bridge to the highest mountain, she is rebuffed and told to leave. While there is hatred from Ting Mu’s mother, driven by grief. For the rest it is a sad acceptance that she must go, she has lost her way, she has betrayed everyone. The emotive repercussions are quite profound but even so, there is merely a drop in the bucket to what is yet to unfold.
Chun is alone, with only the reincarnation of her grandmother. Her world is dying and she can see the many streams of water falling from the sky, will inevitably kill them all. So she choses to do the only thing she can: Self Sacrifice. She infuses the entirety of her being into the tree her grandfather became, helping it grow to gargantuan proportions. Its branches plug the sky and provide a haven for those who had been swallowed by the sea. We see the return of Ting Mu and now it is Chun’s mothers turn to grieve. The last image we give is of her clutching the trunk of the tree, and crying out for Chun. She knows the sacrifice Chun has made, her ephemeral death buying respite from the flood. The clouds part and the sun rises on a flooded world, but a world where the others have survived, at least for the time being.
Now it is time for Kun to repay his debt to Chun, he finds the place she died and takes a branch from the tree to the Lady of Souls who revives her. Chun has lost her powers and due to this, the balance is restored. However, this also means she cannot stay in the world of the others, a world of deep magic. Instead, she journeys to the far edge, picking up Qiu along the way. They share a final meal of what appears to be a roasted potato. There is a sadness to Qui that was not there before, his happy-go-lucky persona replaced by a more reflective, grieving one. The change is as ominous as he musings.
“Does Love last forever live the stars?”Qui
Once Kun is safe, We’ll go home right?Qiu
My powers are gone. I can’t go home.Chun
The Human world is nice. Is that where you wanna live? With Kun?Qiu
Impossible. I don’t belong to his world.Chun
I wasn’t asking… If it’s possible.. I asked if it’s what you want.Qui.
You know you look cute you are eating. I know you pretty well by now. I’ve seen all of you. When you’re tired, when you’re angry, when you’re sad, even embaressed. its all beautiful.Qui
You’re like a brother to me.Chu
This exchange ends with them curled up asleep. Chun thanks Qui for being there for him and he ends up in tears. There is a gulf between them, that cannot be bridged. It is in the feelings Qui has and the feelings Chun has towards Kun. The conflicting desire is breaking Qui, something Chun is either oblivious to or chooses to ignore. Kun’s return to the human world is only achieved by Qui’s willingness to draw forth a portal. He knows though, this will kill Chun but does so anyway because it is what she wants. With a final growth spurt, Kun becomes the great flying fish that Qiu mentioned when he offered the name Kun to Chun. There is a reflective and sorrowful mood as Kun swims away through the portal and vanishes. Qui’s sacrifice is not complete, however, he breaks open the walnut bell that Chun used ot visit the lady of souls and swallows its glowing core. As his body burns away he tells Chun of his deal.
When you see the wind and rain, think of me and i’ll be with you.. Always. Goodbye, Chun.Qui’s farewell
Qui’s final words are the epitome of his decisions. He loves Chun enough to not only save her life but to let her go. To send her to the human world where she can be happy. Knowing that it would mean his total dissolution. He sacrifices everything for her sake, seeing that life would hold no joy if she wasn’t in it. That is the tragedy of Big fish and Begonia. Chun’s decision costs her friend’s and family, two people they held dear, irrecoverably changed the world and all because she could not accept her own failings, could not accept that terrible accidents happen. That death is part of the natural order.
Do you believe in miracles? We each spend countless cycles waiting, waiting to enjoy this adventure called life. It’s so easy to forget how precious life is, how short. It’s lost in a thousand little moments of not caring. It doesn’t hurt to be braver, to be more grateful, more loving. There are many things I don’t understand and many questions I can never answer. But one thing I do believe. That the heavens gave us life, so that each of us can create miracles.Chun as she and Kun wakes in the human world.
Big fish and Begonia is a masterfully crafted animation which delves deep into the question of what is the nature of the human? What is the nature of sacrifice? It does not provide direct answers to these but rather concludes that somethings can never be answered. Its strength is in the emotions and motivations of its characters. The flaws of their character and the dreams that die with each choice they make. A film I would recommend to and one that will sit close to my heart for a long time. If you haven’t watched the film, I could not recommend the film more – though when you do make sure you sit through the initial credits, there is a secret there that changes everything.