An hour after watching this, Judge Bryan Byun was hungry for a better movie.
A modern American fairytale with more than one happy ending.
Year of the Fish, written and directed by David Kaplan, is a modern-day retelling of "Cinderella" set in New York's Chinatown. Ye Xian (An Nguyen), a young woman who has emigrated from China in order to earn money for her sick father, winds up at a massage parlor (yes, "that" kind of massage parlor) run by the tyrannical Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin, who played a similar characer in Memoirs of a Geisha). In financial debt to Mrs. Su, Ye Xian becomes an indentured servant; when she refuses to participate in the unsavory activities at the parlor, an enraged Mrs. Su relegates her to cleaning and cooking duties. Her only friends are a fish, given to her by a mysterious hunchback, and an accordion player (Ken Leung, Lost).
There's a distinctive look to Year of the Fish—it's not an animated film, but it's semi-animated via rotoscoping, in a style similar to Richard Linklater's Waking Life. The animation transforms the gritty New York streets into a shimmering mosaic of smudgy pastels, reminiscent of watercolors. It's an idea with artistic potential, but unfortunately Kaplan doesn't do much with it but punch up his otherwise mundane camera work, like someone who's just discovered Photoshop filters.
More bothersome than the iffy rotoscoping is the story itself, the standard Cinderella tale overlaid with the kind of moldy oldie Asian stereotypes Hollywood never seems to tire of: the shrill harridan obsessed with money, the kindly old wise man, and so on. Ye Xian herself is, predictably, a submissive Asian girl who appeals to Ken Leung's accordion player mainly because she's more "traditional"—meaning, properly meek and compliant, unlike the mouthy Asian-American girls he knows. These stereotypes and sexist attitudes are almost too worn out to be offensive—they're just dull and uninspired.
It's unfortunate that Kaplan doesn't do more with the intriguing premise. As it is, everything about the film feels lazy; instead of giving us any modern, interesting twists, or any kind of real exploration of Chinese immigrant culture, his use of the Chinatown setting seems motivated more as an attempt to rationalize a straightforward retelling of a tired story than any real interest in or understanding of Chinese culture. Year of the Fish fails even as a compelling modern fairytale, since the sordid setting and general vulgarity of the dialogue/situations is too grim and depressing to make for a particularly enchanting experience.
Year of the Fish is presented on DVD in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with reasonably vivid (though purposely muted) colors. Sharpness or clarity aren't relevant factors for a film with a deliberately smudged look, but the intended style comes across well. The Dolby 2.0 stereo audio track is sufficient for the job, clean and without any major defects. Special features include an audio commentary, in which Kaplan goes into more detail about the rotoscoping process and his desire to create a present-day fairytale, and a couple of brief featurettes on the rotoscoping.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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