How Is Your Fish Today?

review by JUSTIN CHANG
in Variety Magazine, 20 january 2007

A writer's journey to a remote Chinese burg meshes with that of his alter ego, just as documentary bleeds into fiction, in the quietly captivating "How Is Your Fish Today?" Xiaolu Guo's itinerant quasi-doc has a strong sense of composition, a wealth of local color and an unusual narrative method that makes its appearance in Sundance's world dramatic competish something of a categorical compromise. "Fish" will next swim to Rotterdam and may get hooked by additional fests en route to select offshore arthouses.

Playful pic begins with docu footage shot aboard a train, as helmer Guo questions passengers about their destination, the northern Chinese village of Mohe. Situated on the border between China and Russia, where the sun rarely sets in summer or rises in winter, and temperatures can drop below 50 degrees Celsius, the little-known Mohe has acquired a certain mystique. It's also the final destination for a young man named Lin Hao (played by Zijiang Yang), who is first seen walking across a desolate stretch of landscape before collapsing in the snow.

Auds thrown by the pic's shift from man-on-the-train interviews to staged drama will get some clarification from Rao Hui, a Beijing-based screenwriter (and, with Guo, the film's co-writer) who appears onscreen as himself. Hao is Hui's fictional creation, the main character of a screenplay he's writing called "Northern Lights."

What follows is a sort of Chinese "Stranger Than Fiction," as Hao's journey -- he fled to Mohe from southern China after killing his lover -- is recounted in flashback, yet repeatedly tweaked and commented on by Hui the writer along the way. Pic forges a spiritual connection between the two men, as Hao becomes the catalyst by which Hui realizes his own long-held desire to see Mohe for himself.

All this adds a tricky meta-narrative overlay to what is essentially a straightforward if visually evocative doc contrasting the urban bustle of Beijing with the simple lives of the fisher folk who dwell in Mohe. Guo, a filmmaker and novelist who was herself raised in a southern fishing village, clearly has an interest in exploring the impact of rapid modernization on Chinese life, as evidenced by her first nonfiction feature, 2004's "The Concrete Revolution."

Hui's longing to see Mohe is mirrored by the filmmaker's own desire to evoke a simpler way of life, and to that end, the Mohe footage becomes the heart of the film. Guo discovers her most rapturous images here, from the firelight that flickers like a makeshift Aurora Borealis in a fisherman's hut to the sight (and sound) of a man eating fish while his wife looks on in silence -- a spectacle so unexpectedly mesmerizing that Guo rightly sustains a long take for several minutes.

The pic's beguiling poetry is aided in no small part by Lu Sheng's DV lensing, which finds a stark beauty in Mohe's icy, sun-drenched landscape. Other tech contributions are modest but solid.

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing),
Jan. 20, 2007.
(Also in Edinburgh, Rotterdam film festivals.)



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