by Diva Velez, TheDivaReview.com
Published: August 28, 2008

As a pachyderm who grew up devouring every possible version of Disney’s Cinderella, the film, the storybook, the LP with the storybook attached, the View-Master Viewer edition, the colouring book, etc. how shocking it was to find out that the fairy tale, long believed to have been authored in seventeenth-century France by one Charles Perrault, actually hailed from Asia sometime around 800 AD (- and apparently, there earlier versions than that). It’s the Chinese tale that brings us to Year of the Fish, a modern Cinderella story with a sweet and sour twist.

Ye Xian is fresh off the boat – or plane, as it happens – from China. Like so many immigrants in New York City, she has come to try to earn enough money to support her parents back home. She has been offered refuge with Mrs. Su, who will house and feed Ye Xian in exchange for Ye Xian’s work in Mrs. Su’s “beauty parlor.” The trouble is, the back alley establishment where Ye Xian believes she will be performing facials on clients is quite another enterprise altogether. And since I’m being a good little elephant today, I won’t connect that joke and will merely say it’s a brothel. Two of Mrs. Su’s regular girls attempt to train the mortified Ye Xian in the ways of peddled flesh, but when the time comes for the painted and humiliated girl to give a customer a “massage,” her pride and better instincts stop her from falling into the World’s Oldest Profession. Enraged, Mrs. Su consigns Ye Xian to all manner of ill-treatment as she forces her pound of flesh out of Ye Xian by making her the scullery maid to the brothel’s goings-on, cleaning, cooking and sleeping on the floor. Ye Xian is trapped and utterly alone in the world, until her only friend is delivered into her hands in a plastic bag by a mystical old lady. The legendary witch Auntie Yaga gifts the unhappy servant with an orange goldfish and suddenly Ye Xian has someone to care for. As long as she has the fish, which thrives and grows to an amazing size in Ye Xian’s care, nothing that the wicked Mrs. Su or her cronies does can touch her or force her to give up her dignity.

Year of the Fish is a delightful retelling of the story of the debased handmaiden with the pumpkin, mice and dotty fairy relative we all know. Adding to the sense of fantasy is the rotoscope animation that places a layer of unreality to some of the sleazy aspects of the story, namely the brothel and lends a storybook-like presence to the hunchbacked grotesque, Auntie Yaga, as well as Ye Xian’s love-at-first-sight encounter with the Prince Charming of the story. Johnny is a struggling accordionist Ye Xian spies in a nearby park as she’s being dragged around by Mrs. Su’s girls. The rich palettes occasionally threaten to overwhelm the film and many times the colours used are so soothing as to make one sleepy. I liked the effect, but I wondered how the film would have read without the animation.

Year of the Fish is careful to be definitely grown up in its logistics, but outside the premise of the whorehouse, it’s pretty wholesome going. Ye Xian gets off pretty easy just having to cook and clean the brothel compared to what could have happened to her, but this is a fable, not an expose. There’s a bright spirit about the piece and that mostly comes from the serene and delicate performance of its Cinderella, An Nguyen, who plays Ye Xian. In her first feature film, Nguyen strikes a wonderful balance of dignity and fragility, capturing the vulnerability of an immigrant in an unknown world, completely alone and threatened. Nguyen’s Ye Xian may have all the odds against her, but at her core she’s made of stern stuff and despite all the magic and mysticism in the story – yes she does get made up to go to a Chinese New Year ball – Ye Xian, with her indefatigable spirit, is really is her own rescuer.

I certainly hope Randall Duk Kim got triple the pay for his portrayal of three different characters in Year of the Fish. With none of the three (- including the frightening Auntie Yaga) is the audience able to determine that the actor is actually under all that makeup and prosthetics. The Joy Luck Club’s Tsai Chin is a scream as the nasty Mrs. Su. With her gimlet eyes and harpy screech, it is impossible to picture this hard-hearted Hannah ever having done any good deed for free. Her hissing contempt for the servant she believes is putting on airs of superiority plummets to mewling skullduggery as she finds and cruelly takes advantage of Ye Xian’s only weak spot. A great find is Hettienne Park as one of the Ugly Brothel-sisters. She’s not ugly (- we think), but she certainly is keeping Maybelline in business with a truckload of plaster on her face that would make a Peking opera star ask for tips. Park’s timing and ability to manage some hilarious expressions under all that gunk make her raucous performance even more exceptional. The Man Who Would be Vegeta – at least in the live action Dragonball Z that plays in my head – Ken Leung makes what is essentially a long cameo as Johnny, Ye Xian’s squeezebox-playing suitor He’s suitably sweet and adoring of ye Xian, but doesn’t really have much to do. The young lady playing his grandmother, Sally Leung Bayer is way too adorable as his doting grandmother.

The locations deserve a mention as well, as Chinatown has never been trod through as thoroughly or captured quite as vividly as in Year of the Fish. An area very close to my oversized heart, I was gratified to see that director David Kaplan had not constructed a Chinatown of the imagination and only gilded his rotoscoping over existing streets and markets and through the heart of Columbus Park, adding to the grounding base of authenticity in his tall tale. Only in Chinatown could an entire feature film be shot with no blocking or street closings and its denizens not give a fig – or lychee. Brilliant.

Not for the kiddies and possibly not edgy enough for grown ups, Year of the Fish wrings every dime out of its low budget with wonderful performances that are by parts adorable, sharp and sweet and certainly worth a look. It’s a charming and spirited confection that even dressed in modern rags reminds those of us who’ve not opened our Little Golden Books for a while of the power of dreaming and hope.