Editor’s note: The text below discusses the ending of the film. We recommend that you watch “The Monk and the Fish” before reading.
In this charming and visually elegant film from 1994, the Dutch-born animator Michael Dudok de Wit tells the story of a single-minded monk and a very elusive fish. While the setting and symbols are Christian, the story progression is essentially Buddhist.
“The Monk and the Fish is not a story about the solution of a conflict,” Dudok de Wit explained to Sarah Molinoff in a 2009 interview for the Oxonian Review. “It’s more about the rise above the conflict, the rise above duality.” The monk doesn’t catch the fish; he and the fish are united. Dudok de Wit took his inspiration from the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of Zen poems and images from 12th Century China, which illustrate the journey to enlightenment through the story of an oxherd’s struggle with a wayward bull. He said:
The genesis of the film was the ending. It was that sequence I wanted to create, where there is a serene union between the monk and the fish. The ending by itself would be flat, too abstract, to pull the audience in, so I clearly needed to have a build-up, to establish and feel empathy with the character. In contrast to the ending, in the beginning the monk is obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, but in the ending he arrives at a resolution. In a quiet way, not with a big act.
The London-based artist hand-painted each frame in ink and watercolor. Like the story, the visual style was inspired by the Far East. “The Japanese in particular, and also the Chinese and Koreans,” said Dudok de Wit, “have a way of using negative space, of not filling the picture, which is very typical of the Far East and very untypical of the West. We can be inspired by it, but it’s profoundly in their culture–in their genes maybe, and not so much in ours. It’s not just about the brush line, it’s also the space around the line that is inspiring.”
For the music, Dudok de Wit chose a classic from the Western canon, La Folia, a traditional theme that was often adapted or quoted by composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel and Liszt. The filmmaker selected a few of his favorite variations–mainly from Corelli and Vivaldi–and asked composer Serge Besset to listen to them and create a new version to fit the film.
The Monk and the Fish took six months to create, and was nominated for Best Short Animated Film at both the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards. You will find it listed in our collection of 450 Free Movies Online, along with another moving short by Dudock de Wit, Father and Daughter. They appear in the Animation Section.