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Cool Fish, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Even fish stories need to be a little bit more than cool."
3 stars

"A Cool Fish" is a genuinely screwy movie by the time the credits roll, and I'm curious as to whether the script was never quite finished or if the film got screwed with at some point, whether by the studio or some other entity. It feels like it was going to be a slickly made crime movie where everything was either on a collision course tied together, but the filmmakers never actually get everything in sync beyond random coincidence, and while it could have worked as fate, that gets undone by someone demanding things wrap up neatly.

It starts out as a real mess - two would-be crooks with the nicknames of "Big Head" (Pan Binlong) and "Bra" (Zhang Yu) have just about everything possible go wrong in as bizarre a way possible, right down to when they break into an apartment to hide out only to find it occupied by quadriplegic Jiaqi (Ren Suxi), who manages to have a number of laughs at their expense and seems to be counting on the fact that the can't let someone who has seen their faces live. Across town, Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) is being humiliated as he works on a building site as a security guard, with shady investor Lin Wu (Deng Gang) holding mock funerals for absentee developer Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), who seems to be hiding from his debts/eloping with mistress Liu Wenhong (Cheng Yi). Ma's attention is drawn to the robbery in part because he suspects the gun used is the one that was dug up on the site, and solving this case might get him back into the police department as an auxiliary officer. He could use that - daughter Yiyi (Deng Enxi) has tuition coming due, even if she does appear to be dating Gao's son Xiang (Ning Huanyu). All those folks and more running around and the "masseuse" that the police were interviewing in the flash-forward, "Zhenzhen" Zhao Hongxia (Ma Yinyin) hasn't even been brought up.

In retrospect, the film maybe isn't as built on unnecessary coincidence and connection as may seem the case at the time, with several plot threads actually less intertwined than one might assume (it doesn't help that most descriptions of the film note that two characters are siblings which gives that connection undue importance in the viewer's head). Director Rao Xiaozhi and co-writer Lei Zhilong still have trouble meshing them, though, and have enough going on that by the time they've cut the film down to something appropriately fast-paced, the chaotic last act is turning on two extremely minor characters having a close connection that was just recently revealed but which still doesn't feel particularly important.

That they don't tie together as well as they should is a real bummer, because a few of the individual stories are damn good. The Jiaqi and her captors are potentially the backbone to a great movie: Rao sets up a situation where everyone can believably feel powerless, and his cast runs with it; Zhang Yu and especially Pan Binlong do a great job of making the robbers entertainingly deluded numbskulls while Ren Suxi gets a whole lot of expression out of just her head and voice, and the scene where the shame she feels really hits home is painfully effective.. I almost want Gao Xiang's story to be popped out to be its own movie; there's something painfully true about this kid hell-bent on defending the father who abandoned him (and how that father doesn't really seem to want to but can't bring new and old loves together). They're adrift in the rest of the story, especially since there's never really a satisfying way to tie them together.

Meanwhile, much of what is arguably the main story is interesting mainly because Chen Jianbin brings life to it. The detective story is too much of a mess for Ma Xianyong figuring things out as an amateur sleuth to be as impressive as it should, which weakens the strength of his resolution that Yiyi never be held back by a lack of formal education, and his tragic backstory seems thrown together. Nevertheless, Chen handles both the slapstick humiliation with which Ma enters the movie and the dogged way he pushes forward with wit and charm, and at least a hint of the guilt he carries.

Rao also proves to be a stylish and creative filmmaker, with an eye for unlikely situations and enough flash to make familiar scenes pop without making his movie frantic and over-stylized You can see reflected ideas in his scripts, about the dangers of trying to solve everything in one ambitious swoop and a few good storylines, and I wonder how this would have done if Chinese crime movies weren't so constrained in terms of the end result. It doesn't quite come together as it should, but the best parts certainly make up for its missteps.

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originally posted: 11/18/18 04:27:05
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Directed by
  Xiaozhi Rao

Written by
  Xiaozhi Rao
  Zhilong Lei

  Jianbin Chen
  Binlong Pan
  Suxi Ren
  Ma Yinyin
  Yu Zhang

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