Philadelphia Film Festival Review: Xiaopeng Tian’s ‘Deep Sea’

Deep Sea Review - 2023 Xiaopeng Tian Movie Film

Vague Visages’ Deep Sea review contains minor spoilers. Xiaopeng Tian’s 2023 movie features Tingwen Wang, Su Xin and Kuixing Teng. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


Xiaopeng Tian’s Deep Sea features the most mesmerizing animation since Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023). The Chinese film explores a girl’s search for her mother in a beautifully rendered aquatic world, with the imaginative and glamorous techniques used to animate the ocean and sky boosting a story that proceeds to greater emotional depths.

The artistry on display in Deep Sea is just incredible — it’s the prototypical “feast for the eyes.” The large and talented visual effects teams, including supervisor Chris Qi Yao among its leaders, alternate sky and ocean shots with absurd color combinations and hypnotic patterns; the glistening of restaurant plates and ingredients lend the food a magical quality. Plus, the astounding glimmer of jellyfish and other sea creatures make the unknowable ocean enticing as well as mysterious. And, of course, the cartoon physics add to the dynamism and physical presence of the characters, grounding them in Tian’s supernatural world. 

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Deep Sea Review - 2023 Xiaopeng Tian Movie Film

A girl looking to rescue or reunite with her family while in a fantastical otherworld is not a totally unique premise in cinema, as the broadly similar backdrop of Spirited Away (2001) immediately comes to mind. Still, a simple story told well can indeed translate to admirable work. In Deep Sea’s satisfying third act, complete with an absolute gut punch, Tian escalates the emotional stakes without undercutting what comes before, providing gravity and urgency to a tale that expands beyond the scope of the film itself.

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Overall, Deep Sea is an appropriately goofy movie with surprisingly effective visual and physical gags. It’s the sort of picture that shows how valuable children’s art can be. Even if the story didn’t have depth, or if there weren’t subtitles, the images convey so much meaning in their gorgeous details. This is not to say that the churned-out blob of mass-art sludge available everywhere doesn’t require hard work; however, such productions don’t seem like a good use of time for the artists involved, especially those who operate under the eyes of greedy corporate financiers. Deep Sea shows that it’s possible to inspire love for an art form while invoking a love for life. 

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Deep Sea Review - 2023 Xiaopeng Tian Movie Film

Deep Sea is, in small ways, about the service industry, the joy of cooking and the struggle of being an artist. But more than anything, it’s about resilience and pushing forward when things get tough. Deep Sea cares about the wellbeing of children and about their mental health — not as a triviality or a checklist item, but rather as a genuine concern. I cannot presume to know what the filmmakers feel in their hearts, but they have signaled a message of hope to suffering children and families through awe-inspiring imagery, beautifully complementary sound design and a cultural specificity that shows how similar our lives and troubles are from one end of the earth to another.

Kevin Fox, Jr. (@KevinFoxJr) is a freelance writer, editor and film critic. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and People’s World. Kevin has an MA in history, loves audiovisual entertainment and dreams of liberation. Check out his Substack at kfjwrites.substack.com.

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Philadelphia Film Festival Review: Xiaopeng Tian's 'Deep Sea'
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Philadelphia Film Festival Review: Xiaopeng Tian's 'Deep Sea'
"Xiaopeng Tian’s 'Deep Sea' features the most mesmerizing animation since 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.'"
Kevin Fox, Jr.
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Vague Visages
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