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Year of the Fish (2008) Movie Review

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Year of the Fish movie pictureWhen hearing that Year of the Fish is a modern-day Cinderella story, that’s not a cue to take your children to it. After all, the movie is about a Chinese immigrant named Ye Xian (An Nguyen) who finds herself working for and in debt to the owner of a massage parlor – in actuality a brothel – in New York.

Year of the Fish is a film festival picture that opened in Seattle (and presumably elsewhere) over the weekend and that rolls Chinese folklore, modern-day issues and a Cinderella love story into one. The result is mixed, but given the obvious small budget and limited scope, it is decent enough.

Writer/director David Kaplan, who, according to IMDB, has made several modern-day fairy tale adaptations already, employs a pseudo-animated visual style – in other words, it looks like he filmed the movie with real actors, and then pressed the button on his video editing software that applies a pastel glaze to everything. The result is like the animation in A Scanner Darkly, only much more rudimentary. I’ve never been a fan of this style, and don’t believe it’s a trend that will survive into the future as it’s more distracting than anything else. At the same time, for a low budget film such as this, it might be the smart move, as it probably saves in makeup, lighting and other costs that enhance the look and feel of bigger productions. If Kaplan used this technique for pure artistic sake, however, it was not a good move.

While overall I didn’t have a problem with the direction, there are a few parts that I didn’t like at all. In one scene, Xian meets this freaky old woman who turns out to be a spirit of sorts; when Xian turns around a moment later, the woman is gone. Kaplan then puts a circle around the area to prove to us that she has indeed vanished. Subtle, I think not. He also employs the use of a Chinese bell to emphasis certain moments in the film; I’ve heard this before, but I didn’t like it then and I didn’t like it here. The bell, while I’m sure traditional, is rather cringe-inducing when watching a modern day movie set in New York.

The writing and acting are okay, though what ends up being the central part of the movie – the romance – is woefully dull. The problem is that Kaplan doesn’t get to the romantic element until the final act, and it wasn’t until the last few scenes that I realized the movie was supposed to be a quasi-adaptation of Cinderella. The relationship between Xian and Johnny (Ken Leung, who “Lost” fans will recognize as Miles from the latest season) is underdeveloped to say the least, and not once did I feel any kind of chemistry between the two. This fact alone pretty much kills the movie.

Beyond its flaws, the general narrative and plot of the film are sound, and the performances are good enough. I like Leung as an actor, and Nguyen holds her own. For what it’s worth, you get used to the painted-over effect after a while. Still, Year of the Fish lacks power, and in absence of that, needed a strong relationship to propel it forward. It doesn’t have that either, and what is left is a valiant effort that just falls short of its desired goal.

By Erik Samdahl
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  • fishfriend

    New York Times
    August 29, 2008

    A Chinatown Fairy Tale

    By JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
    An adult fable told with childlike simplicity, “Year of the Fish” updates an ancient Chinese version of the “Cinderella” story with imagination, charm and just the right amount of sweetness.

    Our put-upon heroine is Ye Xian (An Nguyen), a mousy naïf whose new job at a sleazy massage parlor promises happy endings — for the clients, at least. When she balks at fulfilling her job description, Ye Xian is demoted to cleaning toilets and cooking meals for the parlor’s wicked madam, (Tsai Chin), and grasping employees. Little does she know that an enchanted fish, a witchy soothsayer and a handsome musician are about to save her from her servitude.

    Filmed in New York’s Chinatown using a digital variation on the animation technique known as rotoscoping, “Year of the Fish” straddles the wavering line between reality and its simulation with pleasing calm. Instead of the pulsing images of the Richard Linklater films “A Scanner Darkly” and “Waking Life,” you have a more subdued, mellow style that’s easier on the eyes and the equilibrium. And the movie’s smudged skylines and pearly-pastel streets do much to soften the story’s sweatshop-and-slavery grittiness.

    Written and directed by David Kaplan, “Year of the Fish” packs more sadness than the familiar fairy tale but offers its own fantastical delights. Ye Xian’s party dress, made of teardrops, suits her — and her story — perfectly.

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