Director: Tian Xiaopeng
Screenplay: Tian Xiaopeng
Producers: Qiao Yi
Starring: Tingwen Wang, Xin Su, Kuixing Teng,Ting Yang
Year: 2023
Country: China
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 105 mins

As an animation enthusiast, I was very much looking forward to seeing Tian Xiaopeng’s Deep Sea. I had heard from many people that it was especially beautiful to look at but that it suffered from flawed storytelling. As someone who is particularly fascinated by animation as a visual medium, I didn’t think this would matter too much to me and as I watched Deep Sea’s prologue and phenomenally stunning opening credits sequence I felt sure I was right. But then the film crashed headlong into its bizarre and meandering main plot and I started to develop a headache.

Deep Sea lays out its emotional core from the outset, with scenes of the young Shenxiu adjusting to her parents’ divorce and their neglectful attitudes towards her in favour of their new lives. These scenes are realised with a tender sympathy and economy of storytelling that hit the emotional beats squarely and effectively. This moving introduction is then followed by the most eye-poppingly beautiful credits sequence as Shenxiu plunges into the ocean and encounters numerous fluidly animated, painterly aquatic creatures on her relentless descent. The sequence is the perfect showcase for the film’s ravishing style which combines realistic CG with a strikingly bright imitation of Chinese ink painting. It is honestly one of the most amazing moments I’ve seen in feature animation. But then the plot kicks in. Shenxiu enters the Deep Sea Restaurant, which is populated by anthropomorphic, humanoid sea creatures and run by a roguish human named Nanhe. At this point, the pacing of the film becomes frantic, throwing the viewer hard against the walls over and over again with barely a moment to take in the wonders of the setting. Even while being flung around in this fashion, few will fail to notice the Spirited Away influence here, with some of the character designs being as blatantly influenced by that film as Don Bluth’s films were by classic Disney. It’s a bold comparison to set up but Deep Sea just doesn’t have the narrative skill to live up to it. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece presented a world every bit as stuffed with detail as Deep Sea’s but it told its story at the perfect pace for the viewer to drink it all in, including stretches of notable silence and stillness. Once Deep Sea starts up, which is the minute we enter the restaurant, it starts spinning like a whirligig without an off-switch and as we slip further away from the emotional resonance of that opening passage, the film becomes a bit of a chore to keep up with.

The emotional side of Deep Sea does resurface towards the end of the film but in a confused fashion. At this point, Xiaopeng tries to recontextualise everything we’ve just seen for a third act rug pull but that sort of technique really only works if there’s been a suitable level of coherence to the initial information imparted. Because Deep Sea pitches itself at such a wild pace so early in the game, it’s difficult to recalibrate details that you’ve barely grasped in the first place. On the plus side, the art of Deep Sea remains striking throughout and it’s just about enough to keep the interest. There’s always an interestingly presented visual idea around the corner, even if they’re not quite put together in a convincing way. The emotional payoff still elicits some response because the setup was so strong, although it does work a little hard to achieve it in a way that the Ghibli films it homages rarely seem to be doing.

If Deep Sea had a more coherent plot I might’ve liked it more but I think I would probably have loved it if it had leaned away from plot and into a more languid exercise in atmospherics. The film ultimately feels caught somewhere between those two approaches and mistakenly thinks stepping hard on the accelerator will make everything better. I wouldn’t mind watching Deep Sea again for the visual experience and, while I generally choose a film’s original language over a dub, in this instance it might help to remove subtitles from the equation so there’s one less thing on which the viewer’s eyes have to focus. I’ll certainly be interested to watch any of Tian Xiaopeng’s future projects but I hope next time he doesn’t squander such visual mastery on such frenzied direction.

Deep Sea is released by Trinity Film in UK cinemas on 7 June 2024 in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Deep Sea
3.0Overall Score
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2 Responses

  1. Tobi

    I think you missed the entire subplot of it being representative of an inner psyche going through emotional distress— the ego, NanHe, inner child being an obvious ShenXiu, LaoJin is even representing a leader of the body (the Id).

    I think if you understood the meaning of the movie, you would appreciate it more. Maybe it’s just a bit too advanced and thoughtful for most people to understand, though.

  2. Andy

    Hi Tobi,

    First of all, I’m glad you enjoyed the film more than I did. It’s always good to know there are people out there enjoying inventive and intelligent new animation.

    Having said that, I think it’s a dangerous and arrogant path to assume that if someone didn’t like something it’s because they didn’t understand it. It’s entirely possible for a film to have a clever premise but poor execution, which is how I felt about Deep Sea’s storytelling. The metaphorical depiction of inner trauma is something I’ve seen done often in other films, sometimes well and sometimes not so well. For me, this was an example of the latter. I’m glad you disagree as it’s always more interesting to read a contrasting opinion but l can’t say I particularly cared for the patronising and presumptuous way you expressed it.


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