How Is Your Fish Today?Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/07/07 11:05:44
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "How Is Your Fish Today?" ("Jin tian de yu zen me yang?"), a meta-fictional/documentary/travelogue from mainland China, is exactly the kind of film festivals were meant for, an original combination of different genres that will leave mainstream audiences scratching their heads, but festival goers applauding in appreciation of its innovative, experimental structure. "How Is Your Fish Today?" is also writer/director Xiaolu Guoís, a poet turned filmmaker, first feature-length film. She had help, though, from co-writer Hui Rao, who plays a fictionalized version of himself, a struggling screenwriter.Hui Rao, a modestly successful, freelance writer living in Beijing, writes for television soap operas. Most of his screenplays have been rejected by the Chinese censors or rejected by producers. His reputation is high enough, however, that he teaches a course in screenplay writing every Wednesday at a film school. Raoís latest gig, writing an action/thriller for one of his producers, hasnít gone too well. The producer wants Rao to write a Chinese version of The Fugitive. Raoís arthouse sensibilities (he name checks Fassbinder, Pasolini, and Rohmer) and take him into another direction, into an existential drama about a man, Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang), on the run from Chinese authorities after killing his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. The producer rejects the script, calling it one of the worst heís ever seen and even refuses to pay Rao. Rao canít let go of Lin Hao and decides to rewrite the screenplay.
As Rao rewrites the screenplay, Lin Hao is no longer a murderer or if he is, itís no longer central to the story. Rao imagines Hao fleeing toward the north, more on a journey of self-discovery than fleeing the police. He gets Hao to Beijing where Hao meets a mysterious, femme fatale figure, Mimi (Xiaolu Guo), but his respite is short-lived when the police investigate Mimi not for any crimes, but for her personal life (her neighbors complain about Mimiís boyfriends). As Hao flees north, Rao decides to leave Beijing and its 60,000 streets, 15 million residents, 2.5 million cars, half a million new immigrants every year, and massive tourism industry. Raoís destination, like Haoís, is the small northern town of Mohe, known for the northern lights that adventurous tourists can see there on rare occasions.
When he gets to Mohe, Rao begins to realize that it doesnít match up to his imagination. For one, Mohe has electricity. It doesnít have the niceties, restaurants, clubs, or even libraries that Rao took for granted in Beijing, but Mohe does have a freshly painted elementary school where forward-thinking instructors teach English as a second language. As isolated and apparently desolate as Mohe seems, Rao begins to appreciate its pristine beauty and friendly inhabitants, all of which makes Rao rethink Haoís journey to Mohe and what he meant the journey to mean for Hao and for anyone reading his script or seeing the film made from his screenplay.
Mixing different approaches and styles, from meta-fiction (writers writing about writing, film within film), to genre elements (the ill-fated chase to the north, existential drama), with a personalized, fictionalized travelogue (e.g., interviews, observations about the changing Chinese culture), How is Your Fish Today? (a reference to Raoís inability to keep fish, the only company he has, alive) deserves high marks. While at times writer/director Guo could have speeded up a scene or two (e.g., one involving a Mohe innkeeper enjoying his dinner goes on way too long), the slow pacing fits the introspective, elegiac mood that Guo hopes to convey for various facets of Chinese culture and an urban lifestyle that emphasizes personal fulfillment over familial or corporate duty.That Rao is still single at 33 is a major concern among his friends, as is his health (he smokes incessantly), but the invasion of American-style fitness means Rao has his own personal trainer. Perhaps itís one of several hints that globalization is making inroads in a China that still considers itself communist, if only politically (economically, not so much). Whatís equally interesting is that "How is Your Fish Today?' was made in a China where artistic and political censorship is still the norm and will be for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, censorship wonít be an issue when and if Guo or Rao make another film, together or separately.
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