Hana has Jekyll and Hyde part-time college jobs. She puts in hours at her family’s Korean restaurant and she does a little fashion modelling on the side (she is played by super-model Joony Kim, so we can buy into it). These two radically dissimilar gigs represent her internal clash of cultures. However, Hana really gets confused when she starts exploring a romantic relationship with a more worldly and confident Latina hipster in Joanne Mony Park’s Fish Bones (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
This is an uncertain time for Hana. She has come home from college to help her brother Peter care for their ailing mother and hold together the family restaurant. Initially, she was just staying during break, but now she is not sure when she will return to campus. Nico’s energy has been refreshing and her attention has been flattering. In fact, they have many common interests, particularly music. Yet, it is hard to tell if they really have a future together. After all, Hana has kept her modeling a secret from her family, so we can only assume how they might react to a lesbian relationship.
It turns out Kim is one of those models who really can act. She and Cris Gris (a.k.a. Cristina Tamez-Rodriguez) are terrific as the tentative couple. There is real chemistry between them—halting, but palpable. Frustratingly, Park’s self-consciously oblique approach often undercuts their efforts. She seems to have a pronounced Bruce Weber influence going on, which is way too on the nose for a film about a model (full-time or part-time).
Regardless, Sheldon Chau’s black-and-white cinematography is lovely to look at. There are also some rather distinctive and milieu-appropriate indie-alt tunes on the soundtrack. If ever a film had a Slamdance vibe, it would be this one. However, Park is a bit too coy when it comes to narrative gamesmanship and conversely a bit too manipulative when it comes to Hana’s sexuality. The film would have been more potent and intriguing if we weren’t really sure where her orientation truly falls. Instead, we are hemmed into another morality tale of potential closeted sacrifice, for the sake of familial acceptance.