Do we know the important conversations in our lives when they are happening, or only afterwards? Do we contemplate what we need to understand when we're at the crossroads, or at more seemingly mundane moments? Can we only know ourselves when we are alone, or do other people draw it out? Joanne Mony Park explores such questions in her subtle and effective debut feature Fish Bones.
Hana (Joony Kim) is a Korean immigrant, living with her brother and conservative mother in a modest apartment. Hana is a college student, as well as a waitress at the family restaurant. She has a secret side job as a model, and a possible secret girlfriend in Nico (Cris Gris), herself a Latinx immigrant. Hana struggles between figuring out her identity (sexual and otherwise), while maintaining the facade that her family expects of her.
This is a story that we perhaps have seen in film a few times before, but Mony Park takes an alternate, more contemplative route. Eschewing a traditional, linear narrative, Mony Park instead asks us to get to know Hana in the moments when she thinks no one is looking; some of these moments are when she is alone, in her own private internal world, others are when she is around others, either letting down her guard with Nico, or keeping it in place with her mother and brother.
We watch Hana as she performs a beauty regiment (applying a face mask, almost uniquitous in Korean culture), masterbates, washes the dishes, attends to her epilectic mother, spends time alone with Nico, all the while aborbed in her own thoughts. She might seem a bit self-centred or stand-offish, but given the pressures put on her not only by her family, but even the more gentle, loving pressure of Nico's desire for a deeper connection, we are meant to be an observer to her thought process.
So Mony Park gives us some poignant, and some seemingly ordinary moments; but these are the moments that often meet side by side, that are where both the big and small revelations occur. She and cinematographer Sheldon Chau both reveal and conceal Hana and her conversations, often keeping characters to the side of the frame to highlight the struggle with words and actions as they try to navigate this difficult world.
Following a somewhat meandering yet not unscenic path, Fish Bones looks for those moments for the audience to be a fly-on-the-wall, watching and thinking with the characters as their young lives and actions therein take on greater meaning.