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Spirited Astray

Beijing October Media

Deep Sea (2023)

You thought an animated movie set in a restaurant-submarine owned by a magical clown-chef, staffed by walruses and otters and patronized by fish-people customers who are glued to their phones, with an 11-year-old human girl as the main character, was a kids’ movie? You rube. You fool. You absolute nincompoop. This movie is so grim – it has no problem with child abuse and mental cruelty, in addition to holding young Shenxiu (voiced by Wang Tingwen) responsible for the behavior of the adults around her – that only an idiot would show it to anyone under 12, though depressed teenagers will probably love it. This is also probably because the animation is unusually beautiful, in a smeary, lacquered way, populating every centimeter of every frame with the world-building detail found in the best kids’ movies. Sometimes the little otters, who generally work as waiters and bussers in the restaurant, even dress up in animal onesies and sing songs. But all of this anthropomorphic detail and visual depth wallpapers a plot of jaw-dropping horror that builds to a ghastly ending. The combined beauty and trauma is undoubtedly what brought it to the Tribeca Festival, but as such it’s very hard to recommend. Director Tian Xiaopeng has made a gorgeous atrocity.

Shenxiu is on a cruise with her father, stepmother and little half-brother, who have all forgotten it is her birthday. She goes to text her mother only to realize her mother’s last text was a while ago telling her to stop bothering her. So she is feeling very sorry for herself when she flicks through a kids’ book that tells the story of the Hyjinx, a magical creature her mother had told her about. So later when she is swept overboard and wakes up in a duck-shaped pool float somehow still clutching her phone, she is not surprised to see the Hyjinx appear next to her. It’s basically a roiling ball of black hair and eyeballs, but it knows the lullaby Shenxiu’s mother used to sing, so she follows it to the restaurant-submarine, owned by Nanhe (voiced by Su Xin). However Shenxiu causes one mishap after another, causing everyone she encounters, especially Nanhe, to curse her for a bad-luck charm. Except the Hyjinx is the ingredient needed for Nanhe to get his restaurant’s rating up to five stars; and it’s clear only Shenxiu can coax the Hyjinx to stay. So a miserable deal is struck. Nanhe will keep Shenxiu alive if she works for her keep, which she will do if Nanhe doesn’t hurt the Hyjinx; and once the restaurant’s rating hits five stars Nanhe will help Shenxiu find her mother. But of course no one can be trusted and of course the sea is a cruel mistress. And the worst is yet to come.

Nanhe is a psychotic choice for the adult lead of a movie theoretically aimed at children, and not just because he smokes. He wears clown makeup most of the time – red stars over the eyes, and red lipstick emphasizing his already huge mouth – and cooks the food with a variety of magical processes that are mostly disgusting to see. He spends most of his time schmoozing the tables – the fish-customers are a never-ending case study of nightmare members of the public – and heaping truly gruesome insults on poor Shenxiu’s head. For her part, Shenxiu seems resigned to the awful treatment with a bleakness that’s horrendous to see in a child. But eventually other characters start to feel bad for her; and their pity makes things even worse. And then things get even worse than that. “Deep Sea” would render even the most cheery, well-adjusted adult speechless with shock with its ending. It is so nightmarishly that it’s hard to fathom; and while it does make sick logistical sense, it’s so sad it’s tough to think about.

That’s mostly what “Deep Sea” is: too sad to talk about. Visually inventive, with animation to have the teams at Pixar and Ghibli crying into their cornflakes, but so nihilistic and dreadful you simply long for a bluebird on your shoulder. It’s cruel to make a movie for children which is so hopeless. Like a shrieking nightmare, it’s best forgotten.


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