By Steve Clare
Northwest Asian Weekly
Having traveled alone to New York City, Ye Xian (An Nguyen) hopes to earn money to send home to her ailing father by working in a beauty salon run by Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin), her father’s distant cousin. But the bitter and manipulative Mrs. Su doesn’t actually run a beauty salon. She runs an X-rated massage parlor.
Ye Xian is forced to surrender her passport as collateral for her debt and is informed of her duties. When she refuses to do the requisite sex work, an angry Mrs. Su condemns her to perform every other chore down to cleaning the toilets. Trapped and alone, Ye Xian has no choice but to accept this, and her only solace is a magical goldfish given to her by a sidewalk fortuneteller later known as Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim).
“Year of the Fish” is an animated film shot entirely on location in New York City’s Chinatown. Written and directed by David Kaplan, it’s a modernized Cinderella tale. The Cinderella we know is actually based on a ninth century Chinese variant of the folktale called “Yeh-hsien,” the oldest known version was recorded some 800 years before the better-known European versions. “Year of the Fish” is based on “Yeh-hsien.”
According to the filmmakers, “The animation was created with an advanced algorithmic digital painting technology … (the effect) is less like a graphic novel and more like a painting brought to life.”
Although clearly a gimmick, this technique actually works. It adds to the distant feel of the film, that feeling of not really being part of what’s around you. This helps the viewer empathize with Ye Xian, who is very much an outsider when she arrives in New York’s Chinatown.
She has no friends, and the only people who seem to have any time for her are simply interested in exploiting her. As you view her new environment through a pictorial haze, it parallels her cultural haze.
The portrayal of the Chinese community is not flattering. There are good guys and bad guys, mostly bad. Mrs. Su shows no solidarity with the girls in her care.
Her brother Vinnie is a sexual predator who sees the employees as his private harem. The other girls are mostly cold to Ye Xian.
On the other side, there is an authentic hero in Johnny Pan (Ken Leung). He’s nice to his grandmother, he pays others in his band before himself and for a cartoon and he’s pretty good looking. Best of all, he soon becomes Ye Xian’s knight in shining armor.
There’s no shortage of references to Chinese culture. One scene is set at a Chinese New Year celebration, and the mysterious Auntie Yaga neatly intertwines ancient Chinese folklore into cryptic advice for Ye Xian.
The cast represents much of what is good in the Chinese acting community. Randal Duk Kim voiced the character of Oogway in Kung Fu Panda, Tsai Chin is the daughter of Zhou Xinfang, China’s most eminent classical actor, Ken Leung was cast in Edward Norton’s directorial debut, “Keeping the Faith.”
An Nguyen is making her feature film debut. She does an outstanding job of portraying Ye Xian’s sweetness, vulnerability and inner strength.
There is much to be applauded about in “Year of the Fish.” Some of it is a bit predictable but the two standout factors, the animation effect and its cultural setting, raise it above the ordinary “Boy rescues trapped girl” story. ♦
“Year of the Fish” opens at the AMC Loews Uptown 3, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle, on Sept. 26. For more information, call 206-285-1022.
Steve Clare can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.