With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Monday, August 25, 2008

ACF 141: Year of the Fish

Ye Xian (center) is prepared for her job by Hong Ji (l) and Katty (r)

Year of the Fish
Written and Directed by David Kaplan
U.S., 2007, 96 minutes
Rotoscoped Animation

Last week I got to see a special private screening of this wonderful film that will open at the Angelica Film Center in New York (and also in San Francisco) this coming Labor Day Weekend, August 29, 2008. Later in the month it will be opening in other theaters across the nation.

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.

Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim), the Fortune teller

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!

She's scheduled to star next in The Sorrow of War, based on the novel that looks at the Veitnam War from the North Vietnam perspective. It is to be filmed in Vietnam and Cambodia. I expect to see this fine young actress a lot in coming years.

Tsai Chin as Mrs. Su

Tsai Chin as the "wicked step-mother" figure is a force of nature. She gives an incredibly powerful performance that still manages to salvage her humanity. Her films include The Joy Luck Club, The Interpreter, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Casino Royale, and she has also been seen on "Grey's Anatomy."

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.

Johnny (Ken Leung) and Ye Xian (An Nguyen)

Ken Leung has appeared in Brett Rattner's Rush Hour and in numerous episodes of TV's "Lost."

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.

I must confess that I was somewhat apprehensive about the rotoscoped animation, worried that it might mute the performances. But my fears were unfounded. The technique Kaplan used has produced lovely, often gorgeous, painterly images that at the same time allow the actors' expressions to show through.

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.

The Year of the Fish website has a trailer, photos, and information about the film and the animation process. it's well worth visiting.

Addendum: Here's a ink to the very positive review in The New York TImes that appeared 08.29.08, a few days after my post. Also check out the Reader's Reviews.

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