Animation Features Live Action Movies

Deep Sea
(Shen Hai,

Director – Tian Xiaoping – 2023 – China – Cert. PG – 112m

Subtitled ***1/2 / Dubbed **

A girl on a cruise, who never got over her mother leaving, falls overboard into fantastical worlds – out in UK cinemas on Friday, June 7th

A red child’s coat with a hood lies abandoned on the sea bed. A girl’s feet stagger through a blizzard. She calls out for her mama. But her mama (voice: Ji Jing), a swirling mass of dark hair and eyes, is leaving. And now, the girl is lifted above the sea bottom (as we now realise this location to be) by what appears to be swirling red paint. She wakes, in her coat, on the bus. It was a dream.

Her stepmum (voice: Yang Ting) tells Shenxiu (voice: Wang Tingwen) not to mess around on the bus as she starts pulling faces at her little brother (voices: Dong Yi, Fang Taochen). She boards a big cruise ship, looking at texts from her absent mum, who is separated from her dad (voice: Teng Kuixing). Mum told her about the Hyjinx – if you made a wish on your birthday, it would come and make your wish come true. Left to her own devices – dad is more interested in his new wife and child – she wanders into the marketplace and browses a copy of a picture book about a great undersea restaurant until the somewhat mercenary clown stallholder realises she hasn’t any money and takes the book off her.

Later, after celebrating her younger sibling’s birthday with her dad and step-mum, she wanders on deck in rough seas, thinking she sees her mother in a waterspout. Then, her red coat is floating in the sea. The storm over, she finds herself in the sea clinging to a giant duck rubber ring. The Hyjinx gives her back her phone, which is dead. She thinks it wants to take her to her mum. A ship surfaces – the deep sea restaurant. The fish customers, moaning that the food is awful, argue with the walrus cook Lao Jin (voice: Teng Kuixing again), who throws both Hijinx and girl off the boat, believing them bad luck. Then all the ship’s occupants are swept out to sea before fighting their way back to the luxury liner, where the incoming rush of water engulfs the stallholder Nanhe (voice: Su Xin), now off duty and without clown costume, who captures the Hijinx in a pot with the intention of making tasty soup, then finds himself fighting with Shenxiu over possession of it…

Thus begins this extraordinary and wildly ambitious, if not wholly successful, Chinese animation from producer Yi Qiao (Have A Nice Day, Liu Jian, 2017; Big Fish & Begonia, Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun, 2016). Its narrative goes all over the place, particularly for its first two thirds, which makes it hard going for the audience. Roughly speaking, it’s about a girl coming to terms with the fact that her parents have separated, and her dad with whom she lives has taken a new wife with whom he has had a small son, her little stepbrother. On a cruise, in a storm, she goes over the side and encounters various fantastical creatures – the Hijinx who saves her life, the Red Phantom who threatens it, and Nanhe, who runs the Deep Sea Restaurant on the boat on which she finds herself. In real life, she is in a hospital ward struggling to recover.

I personally think all this is okay for children to watch, because kids (like all of us) sometimes go through deep-seated trauma and have to deal with it as best they can. So exposing them to the idea beforehand may not be a bad thing. The heroine is probably about 10 or 11, which may help give you some idea whether it’s suitable for specific children. It might be a film to talk about with kids after they’ve seen it, or to be prepared to leave the cinema in the middle if it gets a bit too much for them. Or you might enjoy it as an adult with no kids present.

The groundbreaking animation technique employed here is apparently inspired by Chinese ink painting, an animation tradition that links the film with shorts from the Shanghai Animation Studio such as The Cowboy’s Flute (Qian Jiajun, Te Wei, 1963) and the thematically similar Where is Mama? (Te Wei,1960). Animation has come a long way in sixty years, not least with the advent of computers, and some of the effects animation in Deep Sea is incredible. That includes the way the characters are designed and move. The Red Phantom mostly comprises what appears to be red paint (or red ink) flowing through water, as if it were thrown through the air; occasionally it coalesces into something more like a traditional monster – perhaps a giant little girl. It’s mostly pretty fluid, though. The Hijinx is a compelling, swirling underwater mass of black hair and multiple eyes constantly in motion. Nanhe looks a lot like the Joker in The Dark Knight, (Christopher Nolan, 2008) a film with which adult audience members may make a connection when, late in the narrative, he offers to “do a magic trick”.

The ship’s propellers are powered by passengers on lines of fixed bicycles, who perform much the same function as the rows of benches of galley slaves in Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959).

A lavish, 2D animated film within the 3D animated film, shows the ship defend itself against the Red Phantom, who turns into a blubbering version of Shenxiu, a fact remarked on by other members of the crew. This animated film is purportedly made by Nanhe (who somehow has the time to make an animated film, a notoriously slow production process, while running himself ragged with the ship). The film is projected on a screen outside a cabin window, and crops up again at later junctures – you can tell by the fact that the reels of the film projector are turning.

The few songs, annoyingly unsubtitled, enhance rather than slow down the overall pace. In terms of subtitling, The dubbed English language version here doesn’t really work with the rhythms of conversational, Chinese language and thought processes, whereas the English subtitled Chinese language version works much better. (This doesn’t apply to every animated film with original language and dubbed versions, but it’s true more often than not, and it most certainly applies in this case, as the dubbed version is particularly poor.) Curiously, the dubbed version also features songs in Chinese (the songs being subtitled in neither version, alas) which feel like a most welcome breath of fresh air after the poor English dubbing.

Many children’s films feature child protagonists dealing with various aspects of their parents: this one seems to occupy a parallel world, where various characters stand in for the inadequate father and the vanished mother. Nanhe, a father figure torn between making money at all costs and having time for people, seems to be forever trapped in the world of the boat, suggesting him to be something like Peter Pan with his numerous minions standing in for an army of Lost Boys. As well as the book by J.M. Barrie, this echoes Disney’s version (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, 1951).

The end credits are accompanied by static images showing the girl recovering in hospital: strangely, these beautifully rendered, tranquil efforts prove a high point in what is otherwise a frenetic, restless narrative.

A further animated scene in the middle of the closing credits also helps pull the film into focus. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this is a reasonably paced flip through the first half of the picture book seen early on. You may find yourself thinking, as I did, that it would have been really helpful to have seen this right at the start of the film as it might have provided a helpful guide as to what was going on, which is frequently hard to follow.

Deep Sea is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, June 7th.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *