VIFF 2012 Review: A FISH Is A Complex Riddle

Contributor; Minneapolis, MN
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VIFF 2012 Review: A FISH Is A Complex Riddle
Park Hong-min's debut feature, modest as it might seem on the edges, boasts a striking visual presence right from the first frame. We see a stationary shot of a road with cars buzzing by as if we are standing on one side looking at the other; but no, the frame is from a car, revealed by the police officers hand that juts into the picture from one side to knock on the window; and it's not overcast, but a sunny day exposed once the window is rolled down. We discover that a man was speeding because he had a 'burning thirst' and that he has been pulled over when the film cuts dramatically to a title card and an image of an island. Take note: The first sequence and the first shot of A Fish are instructional--keep your eyes open because things may not be as they seem.  

What looks to be clear is that this man is a college professor who irresponsibly bailed on his class and is running away, or towards, something. As it turns out, he has hired a dysfunctional detective to find his runaway wife who has taken refuge on an island and become a shaman. But this film is anything but straightforward with its information; dangling a mystery it promises to resolve with a trail of illogical and indirect breadcrumbs. The most illusive of those clues is an intermittent parallel story of two men fishing at night from a very stage-like boat on water. The pair of fisherman prater on about fish, seemingly with no connection to our distressed professor and sociopathic detective. The two lines of narrative are, however, interwoven with obvious interdependence yet ambiguous significance.

What emerges from the anarchy of images, stories and themes in A Fish is a patiently delivered riddle that may have more heft in its components than its conclusion. You suspect fairly early in the film that separate realities coexist side by side, and that the quandary is how and why they coexist. Interpretations will no doubt diverge, bit I can't help but wonder if the fish that the fisherman are trolling for is the audience. At one point in the film, the one fish they have caught, and are about to fillet, starts talking, taunting the men for being fooled. Needless to say, it is unclear who has been fooled--the fish, the characters, or the audience--but Park seems keen on pointing this out with a touch of humor.  

It's hard to watch A Fish without thinking of Park Chan-wook's elaborate iPhone short Night Fishing or even Apichatpong Weerasethajkul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but maybe there is an obvious connection between fish and shamanism I am unaware of. Either way, Park Hong-min is in good company with his surreal melting pot that also evokes a little Davis Lynch in the dark and foggy ambience it creates. A Fish keeps you guessing and engaged until the end, but with all the bizarre theatrics that pepper the runtime, the finale comes as a letdown, mostly for a lack of audacity to match the rest of the film.

The biggest disappointment with A Fish, however, was that it was not presented in 3D at VIFF. The film debuted at International Film Festival Rotterdam as the first 3D film in the Tiger Awards Competition. Park shot the film on 3D, not for a more enhanced reality, but to take advantage of what he sees as a format that covertly disorients reality, much like the narrative of his film. There are no whiz-bang shots that would seem conducive to 3D treatment, which could either hinder or advance Park's intent. But that is something viewers in Vancouver were not given the chance to judge.

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