VIFF 2010: COLD FISH Review

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VIFF 2010: COLD FISH Review

Is there anything worse--in terms of cinema-going, not actual world issues, natch--than the feeling of dread and mild betrayal of watching a film you've greatly enjoyed start turning to shit? Wanting so hard for things to swing back up while knowing that after a certain point it's almost irredeemable? It's like watching your money flying out into the ocean, while you desperately grasp for the bills knowing it's hopeless and the goodwill you felt from earning that paycheque will be permanently soured.

Sion Sono is a director who has proven on several occasions that he's got brilliance to spare, with a distinct panache for the twisted and a refreshing gleefulness for his often brutal subject matter. All of his films are heavily flawed, ironically except for his least ambitious and most uninteresting outing: Exte. Given that that one, a clever and enjoyable but ultimately shallow mainstream horror-parody, was more tightly edited and less daring, it's sad that it may be one of his best films. Both Strange Circus and Noriko's Dinner Table are fascinating and provocatively uncomfortable, but fly off the rails at some point and to varying degrees. Suicide Club notoriously features an extended and grating scene in a bowling alley that nearly ruins the whole movie. I haven't seen Love Exposure yet, but at roughly four hours long I can't imagine there isn't some abuse of (lack of) restraint to be found within.

With Cold Fish, his weaknesses prove to be as glaring as ever during the film's third act. Up until then, though, it was just the opposite: Sono was flaunting his perfected stylistic approach with an exhiliratingly assured hand. Quick cuts, pounding music and colorful visuals immediately set the stage for a rollicking black comedy that could have been one of his best efforts yet. If only it didn't wind up wallowing in over-excessive gore and off-putting levels of misogyny.

For those that would defend the film by citing that he was following a "true story," well, there are many problems with that. First of all, he has taken many liberties and changed the entire setting, and added a whole cast of fictional characters. Second, there is such a thing as having the sense of what should and shouldn't be glorified onscreen even if in some bizarre universe every one of these incidents had really happened. Like, say, a once mild-mannered man beating the ever living crap out of his daughter and wife. The worst part being that every female character in Cold Fish is either stupid, needy, over-sexualized, irrelevant, or all of the above.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that this is a huge step back for Sono, or that I've lost any faith in him. The first hour and a half of the movie is as good of a time at the theater as I've had in ages, and I think with a better editing partner and some firm wrist-slaps, he could be one of contemporary Japan's greatest filmmakers. Unfortunately, I can only witness so many bare-breasted bimbos getting punched in the face and/or bludgeoned before I dismiss a movie as suspiciously cruel and pointless. This is not to say that men don't get their fair share of played-for-laughs violence doled out to them in the flick, but they aren't say things like "let's make love now!" in the midst of it, either.

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More about Cold Fish

kungfueurotrashOctober 2, 2010 12:56 PM

You're a chick Teresa of course you gonna dismiss it!!! I thought this movie was fucking crazy good... I mean the way they got rid of the body was pretty creative, don't you think??

Teresa NiemanOctober 2, 2010 1:31 PM

I wouldn't say I "dismissed" it at all. I struggled hard to stay with it even in its most repugnant moments. I assume your chick comment is your way of agreeing with the movie's sexism!

Sure, the body scene was creative. There are many things I loved, including the acting--bless those brave folks for throwing themselves into this crazy mess--the way it was photographed, and the usually spot-on dark humor. Still, my overall opinion stands.

kungfueurotrashOctober 2, 2010 3:35 PM

Understood, I respect that...

Todd BrownOctober 2, 2010 6:19 PM

Wow, we had totally different reactions to this. I actually thought the third act was the best part of it. My contrasting review is here.

Teresa NiemanOctober 2, 2010 11:30 PM

Well, at least a can say I'm not just rehashing the previous reviews on this site, then! That's interesting. I agree with most of what you were saying, except I don't think anything about the movie actually made the violence matter. I enjoy my share of stylized violence, I admit, and I think I was still grinning along right up to the pencil scene and shortly after. I think the second trip to the lodge was where it all started to curdle for me.

slaughterhouse84October 4, 2010 12:00 AM

great movie. here is another great review for it, and here is more reviews for MOVIES at the vancouver international film festival




Enjoy the movies.... 4, 2011 10:59 AM

I found it to be an incisive critique of the hypermasculinity of Japanese culture and the repressed sexuality inherent in the business world. The women submit just as the men submit to the dictates of a charismatic tyrant. There is no indication that Sono condones the harsh treatment of women in the film. It might be productive to compare his work to that of Paul Verhoeven, whom he has acknowledged as a major influence. Both use the language of mainstream cinema as a (somewhat perverse) means of self-criticism. For the men, we have the nervous romantic and the overbearing brute. For the women, we have the rebellious daughter, promiscuous wife, and submissive partner. These are all common, stifling archetypes. In its essence, Cold Fish, like much of Sono's work, is about role confusion: the transition from romantic to brute and its destructive effects on both sexes. The mutilation of the human body becomes a sexual release.

ColetteJuly 20, 2011 12:25 PM

I have to say that I agree with Teresa's review. I found it very problematic and vaguely offensive in places. I am a real fan of Sono's and was very disappointed with this as I never had him down as misogynistic but the representation of women as abused objects of male desire and violence was tiresome and totally unnecessary in my opinion.

AnneJuly 20, 2011 12:38 PM

Haven't seen Cold Fish yet, and quite frankly I'm not sure I want to. I had what I suspect is the same sort of trouble with I Saw the Devil, which everyone raved about. I GET the film, I GET that it's a study of how obsessive revenge can warp a person, of the unholy bond between the avenger and his quarry and so on. It's terrifically well directed, and there are some amazing scenes (I particularly liked the one in the taxi) BUT I just got SO fed up with every single female character being abused, raped, tortured and/or killed (OK, give or take the odd escaped schoolgirl, but it's a close-run thing). It just took me back to the mindless slasher movies of the 1980s, and not in a good way - when female characters were little more than disposable tits and ass. I mean, give me a break.

AirchinapilotJuly 20, 2011 12:59 PM

I also saw this at the VIFF and I'm also pretty wearing of the splatterfests. I do admire the filmmaking and the actors really strung themselves out -- and maybe had a bit of fun doing it -- but it really didn't do anything for me aside from initial disbelief at the amount of gore. Who is to like in this film? You can't really root for anyone, especially at the end.

I feel the same way about I Saw the Devil too. Admire the filmmaking and the performances and just not feeling anything. I think I've moved way on from nihilism.

HKFanaticJuly 20, 2011 1:55 PM

I actually loved the bowling alley scene in "Suicide Club" but I do agree that Japanese movies have a problematic tendency to portray woman as helpless objects who suffer under the constant threat of rape.