In the Empty Name of Zhuangzi ——The Arbitrariness of Semiotics in Big Fish & Begonia

Silin Chen

China was once proud of its top-notch animation industry. Animation classics produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio impressed generations of Chinese children and inspired internationally renowned directors like Miyazaki Hayao to pursue careers in animation. Having witnessed the decline of the Chinese animation industry, which was overshadowed by the global popularity of Japanese manga and Hollywood animation, many Chinese animation lovers are desperately waiting for the comeback of “Chinese animation” in the beginning of the 21st century.

In 2004, a 10-minute student-animated short titled Big Fish excited Chinese audiences because of its potential to express a long lost “Chineseness” in animated filmmaking. The directors of this movie clip quickly embarked on a new project to expand and adapt the short to the big screen. In 2016, Big Fish & Begonia was finally released as a full-length animated feature film. Although Chinese audiences had high expectations, the film turned out to be a huge disappointment. LexBurner, an animation reviewer with 3 million followers on Bilibili, criticized this film, calling it a “terrible teen-romantic with weak characterization, illogical dialogues, and poor narrative.”[1] Although some Chinese animation fans chose to highlight its strengths instead of weaknesses in their reviews, the film nevertheless received the low score of a 6.6 on Douban, one of the most popular film ranking websites in China.[2] LexBurner’s review might have been a bit too harsh, but his perspective is representative of the opinion of the majority of the audience, who were dissatisfied by the film. 

My own argument is that besides its anemic narrative and storytelling structure, the “Chineseness” in Big Fish & Begonia is only a layer of makeup. The semiotic system in the film is not systematically and coherently constructed. Instead of creating an organic structure utilizing imagery representative of Chinese culture, the film only scratches the surface and awkwardly and abruptly applies semiotics as in order to construct a superficial label of “Chineseness.”

The film is set in the village of celestials, which is located beneath a deep ocean in the human world. In the celestial society, there is a special rite of passage that stipulates that teenagers must travel in the form of fish in the human world for seven days before being recognized as adults in the celestial world. The heroine, Chun, who is turned into a red fish during her travel in the human world, is rescued by a young human boy in a storm, who eventually dies. After Chun returns to the celestial village, she is determined to resurrect the young man at any cost. She steals and bargains in order to manifest the young man’s soul in the form of a small fish named Kun in the celestial world. Chun’s behavior has violated the taboos of her community, which consequently brings catastrophe to her own family and the celestial village. In the end, another celestial boy named Qiu, who has admired Chun since childhood, sacrifices his life in order to send Chun and Kun together back to the human world.             

Semiotics are overused in this film. While discussing the language of film, Pier Paolo Pasolini claims that “There is no dictionary of images…the filmmaker must take images from the meaningless jumble of possible expressions [that] make its individual existence possible…and add to such a purely morphological sign its individual expressive quality.”[3] In the light of this statement, it is clear that images cannot function directly without semantic significance. It is the film itself that provides context to stabilize the connotations of the imagery and construct the expressive quality of semiotics. However, what Big Fish & Begonia presents is an excess of semiotics without any attempt at establishing semantic meanings in its narrative.

The names of the main characters in the film are good examples. The name “Chun,” referring to an incredibly aged tree, comes from Zhuangzi, a classic of philosophical text. Zhuangzi uses metaphors to elucidate the different dimensions of concepts. It explains that humans think of time in a way that mosquitos could not imagine, and the universe measures the time in a way that defies human comprehension. Because the character Chun is not commonly used in Chinese names, it would not be difficult for the audience to detect its allusion. However, as it turns out, the only scene where she could be seen as related to this philosophical allegory is when she uses her divine power to accelerate the growth of a tree. The rich cultural significance of the name is not presented in the movie. Similarly, the name “Qiu” refers to a small pond in classical Chinese poetry, but the film does not provide any context as for why he has such a striking name. Briefly speaking, unlike what the audience might expect, the characters’ names are detached from their semantic traits. Names like Chun and Qiu are so conspicuous that they seem like they must carry metaphorical meanings. However, after establishing such obvious links to classic Chinese philosophy and literature, the film refuses to provide any syntactic explanation in its narrative. The uniqueness of the names ends up serving a merely decorative function.        

In addition to names, another example of the inadequately developed semiotic system in the film is the overuse of legendary characters. For example, a lady named “Luozu,” the Chinese goddess of weaving, appears at the beginning of film. The film does not bother to tell the audience who she is, why she is called Luozu, what her personality is, or what she is capable of. Luozu appears again at the end of the film when she sends Chun a dress as a gift. If Luozu’s only function is to introduce the protagonists and to bestow a gift, her name is more like a distraction to the audience than a meaningful allusion to the goddess of weaving. Similarly, Chun’s grandmother is a phoenix. Because her personality is not depicted, she is just a functional character that rescues Chun from the final catastrophe. These mythical figures exist on the screen without any justification for their presence in the movie. Used as icons that connect the film with Chinese culture, they are only passers-by with fabulous labels. In a narrative film like Big Fish & Begonia, failing to depict characters’ personalities already has fatal consequences, but what makes it worse is the arbitrary links made between these hollow figures and their cultural references. These tricky figures are dangerous because they confuse the audience and encourage over-interpretation.

There are many other labels that are applied without proper elaboration and justification in the narrative. The gods’ village is a round construction that is similar to the traditional architectural style in Fujian province in China. One cannot but help wonder why this particular style is chosen and how it is significant. There are so many plausible interpretations: it might be a symbol of the harmony and solidarity in the gods’ society or the traditional, self-enclosed building style might imply that the village has strict discipline. However, the film provides little evidence about how the celestial society functions. In a similar vein, “the soup of Mengpo” seems to occur from nowhere and becomes an empty signifier without a proper referent in the film. “The token from the human world” referenced in the film is a traditional stone-made instrument, but it is not clear why this specific instrument is depicted. There are many objects in the film that seem to promise great semiotic significance, but few of them go any step further after making inconsistent connections to Chinese culture.

LexBurner criticizes Big Fish & Begonia, calling it a cheap teenage love story. I do not have a problem with teen-romance, but the film does not manage to tell a teen-romance story logically. In addition, it does not make convincing links between Chinese culture and the narrative of teen-romance. The film applies semiotics as if metaphorical myths and images could cover up the astounding incompleteness and incoherence of the narrative. To put it in another way, by overusing “Chinese” elements, the film makes its whole semiotic system vague, over-complicated, and half-baked. It should be a warning to us that the poetic nature of film semiotics may be easily taken advantage of. Poets embrace semiotics to express themselves beyond the limits of language. Vice versa, semiotics can be piled up in a poetic fashion to disguise the emptiness of meaning and content.    

In conclusion, since such a highly anticipated film failed to fulfill its grand prospect, it is time for Chinese animators to reflect deeply on the concepts of “Chineseness” and “Chinese aesthetics” in animated filmmaking. Neither astonishing frames, exquisite music, nor empty labels of Chinese culture can construct the sense of Chineseness on screen. Zhuangzi would not answer if only his empty name was called. 

[1] See LexBurner’s video review of the film <https://www.bilibili.com/video/av5302595>, accessed June 12, 2018.

[2] See Douban website <https://movie.douban.com/subject/5045678/>, accessed June 12, 2018.

[3] Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Cinema of Poetry,” in Post-war Cinema and Modernity: A Film Reader, ed.  John Orr and Olga Taxidou (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 37-53, here 40.

Bio:

Silin Chen graduated from Nanjing University in China with a major in Film Drama and Literature in 2014 and received a MEd in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, UK. She is now a PhD student in the School of Literatures, Languages, & Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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