“’Year of the Fish:’ This Cinderella story is not for children”
By BILL WHITE, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Published: September 25, 2008
Not every Cinderella story set in Manhattan is “Enchanted.”
“Year of the Fish,” so named because it is narrated by a fish, is an animated fairy tale that will appeal more to fans of Ralph Bakshi (“Heavy Traffic”) and Aron Gauder (“The District”) than the Walt Disney crowd.
When Chinese immigrant Ye Xian (An Nguyen) refuses to give a massage parlor customer a happy ending, proprietor Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin) puts her to work scrubbing floors and preparing meals. She meets a blind hunchback by the name of Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim), who gives her a good luck fish. Her kindness toward the fish endears her to the witch (a variation on the Baba Yaga legend) who works some magic to get Ye Xian to the New Year’s dance where Johnny (Ken Leung), a musician with whom she has fallen in love, is performing.
The story might be a fairy tale, but the treatment is from the gutter, its streetwise dialogue disturbingly incongruous with the Cinderella tale. Still, “Year of the Fish” works as a downbeat tale of a modern-day indentured servant who arrives in America with dreams of prosperity and finds herself the property of unscrupulous slavers. When Ye Xian complains that there is no dignity in the massage parlor business, Mrs. Su replies that concepts of Chinese dignity have no meaning in America.
Director David Kaplan chooses rotoscope animation, a process of painting over live-action movement, to give the film its unusual look. (This technique recently was used in “A Scanner Darkly” to create the hallucinatory world of drug addiction.) It suggests the perspective of the narrator fish, who sees humanity in tones that vary from impressionistic watercolors to hard-edged realism.
The performances from the mostly Asian-American cast are not obscured by the animation. Vietnamese-American actress An Nguyen plays Ye Xian with a stubborn dignity bolstered by courage and sweetness. As Johnny, Chinese-American Ken Leung is a bit of a cipher, but has moments of genuine charm. Tsai Chin, a Chinese actress living in England, is suitably vulgar and cruel as Mrs. Su, and Korean-American Randall Duk Kim covers the shadowy side of the street in three roles that include the horrific Auntie Yaga.
“Year of the Fish” is an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the tribulations many immigrants endure on their road to American citizenship. And yes, it is also a fairy tale, but not all fairy tales are for children.