Deep Sea (2023) ‘Tribeca’ Movie Review: Animation is a stellar, groundbreaking medium for conveying what exists between the lines, what remains unsaid, and etching portraits that are both vividly familiar and otherworldly. Slice-of-life animated films hone in on the subtle, underappreciated aspects of existence, often melding it with coming-of-age themes where struggle, loss, and pain are imminent for personal growth.
A fairly recent example is Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume, which borrows from the visual DNA of Studio Ghibli films and weaves its own eccentric, emotional story. However, when is the line between emotional resonance and manipulation crossed, and can a homage without the appropriate depth to ground it be considered meaningful in any sense?
Tian Xiaopeng’s Deep Sea, unfortunately, suffers from this glaring issue. What it accomplishes in terms of visual artistry and creative flair is thoroughly undone by its lackluster narrative that feels painfully contrived and a pale imitation of the influences that it wears on its sleeve.
The art style of Deep Sea warrants repeated praise, as this combination of CG and Chinese ink painting lends to a world that’s both beautiful and chaotic, teetering on edge between heightened reality and gripping fantasy. There are vistas of underwater life displayed in the first 20 minutes, enough to grip your fancy with its wonders alone…only to jolt you back to the reality of a meandering story that is, frankly, hackneyed and more of the same.
Deep Sea opens with a young girl Shenxiu (Wang Ting Wen), whose dreams are haunted by the visions of her mother, who abandoned her at a young age. Now that her father is remarried, all attention is showered on his second child, and Shenxiu spends her days being utterly neglected and uncared for. While these emotional beats, although familiar, can help evoke complicated sentiments when done well, Deep Sea uses these tropes to ham fist a tragic story in a way that feels almost vulgar, as the cruelties depicted are so over the top that all sense of nuance is lost. What could have been emotionally resonant now feels emotionally manipulative.
Shenxiu is on holiday with her parents, who forget her birthday altogether (of course), and she ends up remembering her mother’s words: if you wish for something, a magical creature called the Hyjinx will help translate it into reality. After Shexiu makes her wish, she is violently thrown overboard. She meets the said magical beast, who leads her to a beautiful underwater restaurant peppered with animal clientele and one human chef named Nanhe (Su Xiun). Intentional or not, Nanhe emerges as a source of horror in Deep Sea, as the character’s overly animated mouth movements and uncanny valley style often do not blend seamlessly with his intentions, which evolve drastically over time.
By now, it is clear that the Deep Sea is heavily influenced by Spirited Away, as there are several parallels between the eccentricities that the two worlds share. However, the problem isn’t that Deep Sea pays homage to Miyazaki — the issue lies in the fact that it tries too hard to follow the dream logic of Miyazaki’s world, which, in his case, is organic and instinctive. Still, here, it only comes off as needlessly convoluted and deliberately orchestrated.
Suppose you’re able to approach Deep Sea with baseline expectations, where visual brilliance trumps storytelling or character-driven nuance and is the only thing that matters to you. In that case, it works as a disjointed dream. However, if you’re looking for something that is not completely style over substance, Deep Sea will undoubtedly fall short as an experience and even feel grating due to its oversimplistic understanding of familial abuse and abandonment. No amount of vibrant, otherworldly swirls or impressive, dreamlike vistas can salvage a film with a hollow, cavernous center where the heart should have been.