Year of the Fish
Written and Directed by David Kaplan
U.S., 2007, 96 minutes
Year of the Fish is an independent animated feature that's based on the Chinese version of the Cinderella story, one that reportedly predates the European version by several hundred years. In a brilliant twist, writer/director David Kaplan, making his feature film debut, places the story in a "massage parlor" in today's New York Chinatown.
Ye Xian (An Nguyen, in her first film) has come to New York to make money for her sick father back in China. (Her mother is dead.) She arrives with no knowledge that her expenses have been paid by Mrs. Su (the fantastic Tsai Chin), the owner of the massage parlor, who expects Ye Xian to "service" the clientele to pay off her debt.
When Ye Xian is unable to bring herself to "perform" such labor, Mrs. Su instead assigns her all the menial, physical labor: shopping, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, etc. Ye Xian also has to face the advances of Mrs Su's younger brother Vinnie (Lee Wong), and the animosity of Hong Ji (Hettienne Park), a jealous "masseuse." In another nice variation on the traditional Western version, here there is only one "wicked step-sister" figure, Hong Ji. The other "step-sister" who features in the story is Kitty (Corrine Wu), a "nice" one.
These evil forces are countered by three characters. Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim) is a scary but benign fortune teller actually based in Slavic folklore. She gives Ye Xian a magical goldfish, who narrates the beginning and ending of the tale. Finally, there's Johnny Pan (Ken Leung, of TV's "Lost" and several well known films), an accordion player in a trio and Ye Xian's romantic "prince."
The cast is outstanding.
An Nguyen, who is Vietnamese by birth, conveys the perfect balance of sweet innocence and moral grit. She has been seen in The Brave One (2007) with Jodie Foster and 2008's Definitely, Maybe. Although Year of the Fish is technically a 2007 release, principle photography was done in 2005, so this was actually her first film role, and a starring one at that!
Randall Duk Kim, in addition to his role as Auntie Yaga, also plays an old man who harangues Ye Xian about what to do with her fish and the foreman of a Chinatown clothing sweatshop. Among the films you may already have seen him in are Memoirs of a Geisha, The Matrix Reloaded, Anna and the King, and The Replacement Killers.
As for the others, just click on the links I've provided, if you haven't already. Just be prepared to be impressed by all the filmographies.
Year of the Fish is an imaginative wonder, a marvelous work by a talented director working with a terrific, talented cast and crew. The dialogue is sharp, smart, and very funny. The film has everything one could want: suspense, tragedy, comedy, great performances, and – of course– a magical, talking fish! It's a delightful film, a real gem. Catch it at the Angelica, in San Francisco, or at one of the other theaters that will be showing it soon.