Seasoned Taiwanese music video and commercial director Lai Kuo-An ventures into feature-length fiction storytelling in his debut A Fish Out of Water. A trope of its own, the title refers to a young character, pre-schooler Yi-An, and his slightly confused and cautious social interactions within his family as well as his immediate environment.
The only child of a young couple Yaji and Haoteng seems to inhabit a different reality incessantly mentioning his "first mother and father" and "their life" in Toyama. He longs to return to Toyama. The writer-director unspools a cryptic premise of a troubled child and the mystery of its origin.
What looks like another coming-of-age drama never fulfils the genre conventional expectations and rather forays into a dysfunctional family territory. As Haoteng struggles with his small restaurant and his wife Yaji with selling apartments, the responsibilities of being a parent and a child drive a wedge between the couple. They have to not only take care of their small son suffering uncertain syndrome but of Haoteng´s incapacitated father stricken probably with severe Alzheimer's as well.
Lai Kuo-An embraces the ambiguity which doubles as a curiosity device keeping audience engaged into the story awaiting the revelation of the real reason behind Yi-An´s harmless yet disturbing behaviour. A Fish Out of Water alternates between realism of a struggle of autistic boy and supernatural of a possessed child. Occasionaly, the unknown diagnosis appears to be a red herring, a formal purpose employed as a dramaturgic instrument.
Nurished by the ambivalance, the writer-director cements the overal style of the film in the vein of civil strain of magic/poetic realism. The son acts as an attention rod and it certainly lubes the tackling of social issues sandwiched between young and elderly generations.
Lai Kuo-An sidesteps the usual tropes and clichés of family drama and approaches the conflict from the brighter side of a poverty porn composition. The child´s perspective softens the abrasiveness usually associated with the topic and its formalism. Despite Lai Kuo-An´s empathic approach, the film avoids sentimental pitfalls and as such remains targeted primarily at adult audience.
A Fish Out of Water is indeed a refreshing spin on dysfunctional family storied framed by social realism and Lai-Kuo An demonstrates how an overwrought topic can be refurbished by wielding a different style with which it is not usually coupled. In Lai Kuo-An´s case, the form keeps the substance engaging.
Yi-An´s storyline could be regarded as a minor one and complementary to the development of the character of the mother however Lai Kuo-An´s scriptwriting engineering designed it as the story´s vertebrae thus creating a space for soft scenes enabling to sustain the rhythm of escalation and de-escalation. Not an emotional rollercoaster nor a tear-jerking theatre of sentimentality and self-pity, the writer-director manages a soft melancholia tone in a variety of shades never exerting the marasmus of desperation.
The pacing and structure lies in a reverse dramaturgic structure making the boy´s illness front and center in faint implication of being the consequence of the parental discord instead of foregrounding the parent´s schism driven by their unfavorable socio-economic situation underwritten under their deteriorating relationship.
Lai Kuo-An revamps dysfunctional family story and rehashes social realism drama by renewing the usual stylistic and formal inventory. A Fish Out of Water injects dreaminess and melancholia counterbalancing the civil and bleak set-up. The debuting Taiwanese filmmaker proves that re-imagining a story through child´s eyes raises the audience engagement levels along empathy without undermining the importance of the message nor the targeted audience demography.