Saturday, June 20, 2009

NYAFF: Old Fish

It is tempting to think of Yu Liquing as the Chinese Abe Vigoda. Affectionately known as Old Fish, he is a jaded flatfoot, more interested in ice-fishing than police business. Strictly speaking, he has little formal training in explosives. However, he is the best option available to the Harbin police when a mad bomber starts leaving fiendishly constructed explosive devices throughout the city in Gao Qunshu’s gritty character-driven police procedural Old Fish, which screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.

The Northeastern city of Harbin is still largely influenced by its Russian cultural heritage and harsh climate. Winters can be pretty grim. It is not a good time to be rushing around the city, defusing one deadly package after another, but that is the position Old Fish finds himself in. Previously, most of his bomb disposal work involved unearthed WWII-era landmines and munitions. Suddenly, he finds himself contending with ticking time-bombs and sophisticated remote control detonators. It all makes for a dangerously exhausting day for Old Fish, depicted with exacting realism by Gao Qunshu.

Gao leaves the business of chasing the bad guys to other off-camera officers, concentrating on the Old Fish’s nerve-wracking role as a one-man bomb squad. He seems to be more interested in capturing the working conditions and processes of the Harbin cops than building traditional movie suspense. Through his lens, we see a bureaucratic police force rife with cronyism, where officers have trouble expensing a simple length of rope. This naturalistic approach is perfectly served by the dark, dilapidated tenement sets and cinematographer Luo Pan’s coarse visual style.

Former policeman Ma Guowei brings complete credibility and sincerity to the title role, clearly conveying the sharp intellect beneath his laconic facade. His veteran copper is not really world-weary per se, just a bit disillusioned after years of service. The surrounding cast also has that unquantifiable cop look down pat, including Pan Xingyi as a spirited younger colleague and screenwriter Lan Jinglin as their captain.

Gao’s choices in Old Fish are certainly unconventional, de-emphasizing most of the tried and true elements of the crime thriller. However, the drama and tension of the story remain inescapable. It is an intriguing film, featuring a richly textured lead performance from Ma. It screens at the IFC Film Center during the NYAFF on June 23rd and June 25th.