Animation as a medium is often undersung and underestimated—all the more reason to seek out nearly every animated film that I come across. In recent years, some of my favorite animated features have emerged from the film festival circuit. Last year alone, 2D-animated marvel Titina, bizarre ultra-gory Unicorn Wars, stop motion horror fantasy Wendell & Wild, and charming but devastating Goodbye Don Glees proved that the genre is far more than kiddie fluff. Now, Berlinale’s Deep Sea, a Chinese import, provides stunning visuals and emotional resonance to boot. Writer/director/animator Tian Xiaopeng, whose previous feature Monkey King: A Hero Is Back was a milestone for Chinese animation, returns for his second feature in nearly a decade. Who would have guessed that the story of a young girl on a journey to find her mother could carry this level of crippling sadness?
From the first glimpse of the world in Deep Sea, the viewer is instantly transported into a brighter, more vibrant existence. A hoodie at the bottom of the sea, covered in sand, beckons us into this tale of young Shenxiu (Wang Ting Wen) and a recurring dream she keeps having about her mother. She screams for “mama” as a blizzard rages around her. Her mother’s figure in the distance morphs into a many-eyed blob of muk, some nightmarish thing that seems strangely inviting… We later discover that this creature is known as a Hyjinkx, a mystical water-being that moves like a squid but is decidedly not one.
Shenxiu’s father, baby brother Sweetpea, and stepmom board a luxury cruise ship to see the ocean. Both parents seem to pay little attention to Shenxiu, favoring Sweetpea at every turn. While it would be expected to find the bulk of Deep Sea taking place on this cruise ship, there is a different kind of tale in store. In the aftermath of a raging storm, Shenxiu awakens in the middle of the ocean, swimming upon a floating duckie in the water. A Hyjinx beckons to Shenxiu, implying that it will take her to find her mother. Accompanying her on this unexpected journey is the chef and captain of the floating, majestic Deep Sea Restaurant, Nanhe (Su Xin). The two cross paths when Nanhe attempts to capture Shenxiu’s Hyjinkx, as the creatures are the primary ingredient in Nanhe’s famous Dough Drop Soup.
A bond quickly forms between Shenxiu and the absolutely bonkers Nanhe that is nearly as magical to watch unfold as the spectular visuals themselves. The duo set their sights on the Eye of the Deep Sea, in the deepest depths of the ocean where all Hyjinx are said to roam. Pursued by the relentless villain in the form of the so-called Red Phantom, Shenxiu and Nanhe must stick together to have any hope of finding Shenxiu’s mother, and allowing Nanhe’s restaurant to sway back in favor of his demanding critics. Culminating in a crescendo of cascading action and colors, Deep Sea continues expanding its wondrous ideas before reaching a moving conclusion. A shocking twist is befitting of a story that feels special and timeless—certainly, this facet of Deep Sea will be memorable by year’s end.
The film’s title, Deep Sea, can serve as a play on words. If taken literally, we of course encounter plenty of water and deep expanses of ocean during the movie’s duration; conversely, Shenxiu’s deep sea of torment and sorrow at the absence of her mother also fit neatly against that title. Often, finding things in one’s life worth living for can be an enviable task, particularly for those who suffer from clinal depression or other such proclivities. Deep Sea posits that there is a swirling beauty around us at all times—even just a smile from the heart can be enough to pull us through.
Deep Sea screened at 2023’s Berlinale International Film Festival. The watery tale was released in China on January 22nd, and is currently awaiting U.S. distribution news.