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Year of the Fish
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by Jay Seaver

"Forget it, Cinderella, it's Chinatown."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: You can cover a fair amount of limitations with animation. Take "Year of the Fish", for instance - its extensive rotoscoping not only lets it stand out from the crowd, but it has practical benefits for the filmmaker (during the Q&A, director David Kaplan mentioned producing an HD master without shooting in HD and not having to worry about tricky lighting setups on location). It also introduces just enough unreality that Kaplan can combine the simplicity of a fairy-tale story with a distinctly modern setting.

Year of the Fish transplants the Ye Xian fable, one of the oldest known versions of the Cinderella story, to contemporary New York City's Chinatown. Ye Xian (An Nguyen) arrives in America with the intention of supporting her ailing father by working in his cousin "Ma" Su's supposed beauty salon - where, of course, massages and happy endings are the actual featured attraction. Ye Xian can't bring herself to give a stranger a blow job, so Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin) makes her do everything else. In other parts of Chinatown, musician Johnny Pan (Ken Leung) is having trouble with his white girlfriend and paying off his bandmates when $50 each becomes $50 for the trio, while fortuneteller/mystic/sweatshop owner Auntie Yaga lurks.

Some of the trappings of a traditional Western version of Cinderella are absent, and the whole thing has been grittied up a bit, but it doesn't take a class in comparative folklore to recognize what is going on. Sure, one of the stepsisters (Corrinne Hong Wu) is significantly less wicked than the other (Hettienne Park), and Prince Charming is not exactly heir to a kingdom, and I don't remember the sketchy massage parlor from the Disney version, but I'm not spoiling too much when I say that the plot doesn't do a major swerve away from what the audience is used to. Kaplan probably stays a lot closer than he really needs to. The film probably could have done away with all the trappings of magic and the special, pretty dress, hiding its fairy-tale origins underneath a story about how people who come to America to find work are often exploited and used sexually, but that could have been cheap in its own way. It takes a much finer touch to let the children's-story origins be seen without giving the audience much chance to snicker at how the adult content is added.

The method of animation helps. It's the same sort of digital painting that Richard Linklater used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and it changes New York City into an even more mythic, unreal place. But it also flattens the world - only rarely does some element jump out at the audience as being brighter, more colorful, or better than real. Ye Xian's goldfish does that, as does a bit of snowfall. I suspect, though I'm not sure, that it was also used to assist Randall Duk Kim in portraying his multiple roles - Auntie Yaga, especially, sometimes looks like her face was either drawn on or embellished later.

It must be an odd thing for actors to work knowing that a good chunk of their performance will be covered up in post-production. They manage, though. An Nguyen is careful not to overdo the "quiet dignity" thing; she's clearly miserable and spends much of the film close to tears, but lets us know that Ye Xian isn't going to give in without doing something as obvious as setting her jaw and standing up a little straighter. Tsai Chin's adds just enough bitter experience to Mrs. Su's cruelty to keep the character from being completely one-dimensional, and Lee Wong gives Ma Su's brother Vinnie the right sort of dumb brutishness he needs. Ken Leung is a bit vanilla as Johnny, but that sometimes can't be helped in the handsome prince business. Randall Duk Kim's various roles are nicely individual even as they make sense as multiple aspects of one idea.

Kaplan has made a series of short films based on various fairy tales and fables, and the experience has served him fairly well in his first feature. He finds the sweet spot where "Year of the Fish" is able to be mature and "real" enough to play to an adult audience while not losing track of the simple, hopeful idea that makes this story work in the first place.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16130&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/28/07 20:24:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

4/29/07 Sarah Hill A well-known story in an unlikely and yet magical setting. 4 stars
4/10/07 Paul Grossi Magical story, beautiful movie 4 stars
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  DVD: 08-Feb-2011



Directed by
  David Kaplan

Written by
  David Kaplan

  Tsai Chin
  Ken Leung
  Randall Duk Kim
  An Nguyen
  Hettienne Park

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