Engaging meta-fiction tale about writing and murder in changing China
In 'How Is Your Fish Today' a screenwriter called Rao Hoi, the protagonist, who, to make things even more self-referential is the film's author, playing himself, ponders Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang), his protagonist in a screenplay he's trying to write. His producer wants something like a mainstream US thriller -- Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, maybe -- which he certainly isn't going to get. Rao Hoi, a bespectacled smoker -- though he does go to the gym and has a personal trainer, sits in the restaurant downstairs in his apartment building that he calls his "office" and eats his favorite meal, "Chairman Mao's stewed pork," thinking and re-thinking what to do with Lin Hao. All this in quiet, meditative voice-over, as the images (both of Rao and Lin) unfolds in a manner both soothing and stimulating.
As Rao tells Lin's story or the fragments of it that occur to him, he comments on the requirements of the narrative. When Lin meets a woman at a deserted train station, Rao narrates that Lin is lonely now and needs company, but adds that he needs someone to get his character to Beijing. Lin has killed his girlfriend -- at least that's the idea -- and has gone into hiding by wandering around up north, running into various people including a fat, obnoxious salesman and a policeman (who causes him to flee from the boarding house he's stopped at), and ultimately winding up at the far northern point of Mohe. The woman he meets waiting with him alone by the tracks, who might have any kind of name but whom he calls Mimi, is played by Xialu Guo, the director. This isn't just economy: it's more meta-fiction. And Mimi is as mysterious and wreathed in red scarves and cigarette smoke as any Wong Kar Wai lady, even Maggie Cheung.
Lin's journey to the area known as Mohe from southern China is told in flashback by Rao Hui; but he is going there himself. He wants to use this location because he's always been curious about it.
This film came directly out of a documentary. Xialu Guo went to Mohe to make a film about this northernmost point in China for a British company. When she got there, the place seemed too poor and dreary -- despite the Northern Lights -- to provide adequate material, and the documentary was never completed. She was left with footage not only of the place but of passengers on a train heading there being interviewed about it.
In 'How Is Your Fish Today'? there's also footage of Xiaolu Guo, Rao Hoi, and their film-making cohorts gambling and partying at Rao's home, where they like to gather regularly, his omnipresent voice-over tells us, because he's the only one who's not married with kids. That worries them a little as he is in his thirties now -- but they like getting together there.
At the same time that much of this is documentary or autobiographical footage, through the skillfully interwoven invented narrative it continually develops its appealing meta-reality. And the DV cinematography is consistently fine as it depicts lives and places in the chaotic world of contemporary China.
Just as the filmmaker's documentary project on Mohe morphed into this fiction, Rao Hui begins to express some doubt that his murderer character Lin Hao could ever really have killed anyone. And the woman, who could have any one of many names, stays with him, or he stays rather with her, in a Beijing apartment.
When we see the flashbacks where Lin Hao goes to Mohe, where Rao Hui has always wanted to go and where Xiaolu Guo was supposed to make the documentary, this film reminds me of another film about Patricia Highsmith in which she checks into the same hotel where Tom Ripley is staying, and as she speaks and is interviewed about her famous amoral hero, it's intercut with dramatized key scenes from the Ripley novels, notably Ripley Underground.
Xiaolu Guo's film is an engaging and adept blend because of its excellent photography, the ceaselessly various voice-over narration, nice music, and of course most of all fine editing. The filmmakers have learned how to make movies. Rao Hui teaches film occasionally and he mentions showing his students films by Rohmer, Pasolini, and Fassbinder. (He shows them Rohmer's 'Le rayon vert' and then they vanish, escaping the after-screening discussion.) In fact stylistically perhaps this is more literary and sophisticated and indebted to western cinema than the work of powerful younger Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, though it doesn't seem to have as much to say or to have quite the emotional resonance of Jia. But this in itself may be highly expressive of a kind of exhaustion engendered by China's overwhelming exponential growth rate; and resonance is where you choose to find it. Xiaolu Guo evokes so many pleasant memories of film going, while showing us a new China, that the experience of watching How Is Your Fish Today? can quite enchanting -- especially for a film lover. Anybody who can make simply driving through Beijing so informative and fresh has a way with a camera and a narration, and the final segment makes Mohe, which seemed too mundane and poor to make a documentary out of, into an intriguing mixture of drab moments and pure poetry.
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