CHINA IN YOUR HAND : Xiaolu Guo's 'How Is Your Fish Today?'

by Neil Young


In Britain, something which doesn't conveniently fit
into pre-existing categories may be described as being
'neither fish nor fowl' (or alternatively 'neither
fish nor flesh.') Such terminology is often deployed
with a certain degree of impatience and
dissatisfaction, betraying the user's preference for
neat and handy demarcations. But with her remarkable
new film How Is Your Fish Today?, Xiaolu Guo reminds
us that one of the tell-tale trademarks of creative
intelligence is a desire to explore, test and
transgress boundaries of all kinds.

In her biography and art, Guo epitomises these
desires: born in a Chinese fishing village in 1973,
she moved to London in 2002 to study
documentary-making. The fruits: The Concrete
Revolution (2004), an hour-long study of Beijing's
construction industry; then How Is Your Fish Today?,
which premiered at the inaugural 'BritDocs' festival
at Oxford University last July and which showed in
Izola alongside Guo's 11-minute short Address Unknown

In both China and Britain, however, Guo is (currently)
better known for her literary output: alongside
several collections of poetry and essays, there are
the novels Village of Stone (China 2003; UK 2004;
translated into French, Dutch, German, Portuguese and
Polish), and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For
Lovers (2007). The latter's nomination for the
prestigious and valuable Orange Prize For Fiction
propelled Guo into onto the country's artistic

How Is Your Fish Today? (which competed at both
Sundance and Rotterdam in January, and won the Grand
Prix at the Creteil International Women's Film
Festival in April) cements Guo's polymath status,
instantly establishing her among the most promising
young film-makers in Britain (and indeed Europe)
today. Guo's approach here consists of taking what
appear to be starkly defined sets of opposites and
blurring the distinctions between them: documentary
and fiction; reality and representation; author and
character; rural and urban; youth and maturity; past
and present; north and south.

Her vehicle for navigating these tricky waters is the
story of Hui Rao, a Beijing-based screenwriter in his
early thirties working on a script entitled Northern
Lights (brief episodes and stills from which
repeatedly interrupt the film's 'main' narrative). The
'real' Hui Rao also happens to be Guo's co-writer on
How Is Your Fish Today?, and he appears as the film's
protagonist. Whereas (the fictional) Hui Rao's life is
humdrum, unrewarding (he's long accustomed to having
the terms of his professional existence dictated by
government arts policy), relatively solitary and
static, the hero of Northern Lights - 27-year-old Lin
Hao (Zijiang Yang) is an impulsive rebel with a torrid
love-life, who goes on the run cross-country,
Fugitive-style, after seemingly slaying his
'Seemingly,' because it soon becomes apparent that
Northern Lights is very much a work-in-progress - when
Lin Hao meets the mysterious 'Mimi' (Xiaolu Guo in a
droll, near-wordless femme-fatale cameo), the
narrating Hui Rao admits to us that "I don't really
know what to make of their relationship." Though
they're in many ways opposites, Lin Hao and Rui Hao
share one character-trait: a fascination with Mohe,
China's northernmost town, located in the frozen
extremes of Manchuria on the Russian border.

Lin Hao heads for Mohe in search of safety, redemption
and salvation - and eventually Rui Hao musters
sufficient energy to do the same. And as the paths of
author and creator start to converge towards the same
(vanishing?) point, Who Is Your Fish Today?
increasingly blurs the distinction between documentary
and fiction to the extent that the movie becomes what
musicologists call a 'fugitive' piece - one whose
authorship and derivation is a matter of debate and
conjecture rather than definitive record.

These kinds of post-modern, deconstructionist
high-jinks are, of course, hardly new: back in 1920
playwright Luigi Pirandello set his Six Characters in
Search of an Author, while Guo (and Hui Rao) now
propel their author in geographical and metaphysical
pursuit of a character (and, indeed, 'of character.')
In cinematic terms, recent antecedents span the
high-art ludism of Jacques Rivette and the
multiplex-friendly jeux d'esprit of Charlie Kaufman
(Adaptation.) and Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) -
as the Chinese authorities would no doubt
disapprovingly note, such influences mark How Is Your
Fish Today? as in cultural terms essentially a western
(or perhaps western-flavoured) concoction.

But Guo and (the real-life) Rui Hao manage to breathe
new life into what was in danger of becoming an
overused sub-genre: the sensitivity of their approach
and their attention to character-detail ensure that
the personages we see on screen are never mere puppets
in the hands of clever manipulators. In technical
terms, the film is impressive in every detail - Lu
Sheng's DV cinematography capturing the sights and
flavours of a dizzying range of Chinese locations, so
that (partly thanks to Emiliano Battista's editing) we
feel like we've covered an enormous amount of ground
in a mere 83 minutes. Matt Scott's score is wittily
deployed to help us distinguish between Guo's movie
and Hui Rao's film-within-the-film, though of course
such distinctions become fruitfully ambiguous as
proceedings unfold.

Guo marshals the contributions of Lu, Battista and
Scott to ensure they're always working at the service
of her narrative - turning what could have been in
lesser hands academic, arid and off-puttingly
'clever-clever' into an accessible, humorous and
consistently satisfying work which could be an ideal
stepping-stone for general audiences into the more
'challenging' current Chinese cinema of, say, JIA
Zhang-Ke and YING Liang (though WONG Kar-Wai's rather
more opulent tales of dissatisfied authors and arduous
journeys also come to mind from time to time.)

Likewise, the post-modern conceit which underpins How
Is Your Fish Today? - a jokey-sounding title which in
fact works on at least three different levels at
different points in the film - is very much a tool, a
means rather than an end in itself. Nothing if not
ambitious, Guo's aim is to dramatise the pleasures and
problems inherent in the creative process - both in
the universal sense, and also within the specific
framework of early 21st-century China - the latter
aspect allowing the viewer an understanding of a
nation and a people struggling to cope with an
unprecedented rate and scale of change. The pressures
on the individual are, as we see from both Guo's life
and her art, extreme: but, as How Is Your Fish Today?
proves, the results can often be surprising,
remarkable and profound.


Neil Young, June 2007

for EKRAN Film Magazine, Slovenia
also published online on Neil Young's Film Lounge

read original article here






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