Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Fish Eyes

In truth, there is not one single China, but many. It is a vast country, incorporating many diverse ethnicities. However, in an economic sense there are two distinct Chinas, the go-go economic powerhouse we constantly hear of in the media, and the majority of the country eking out a hardscrabble existence. It is the latter that director Zheng Wei turns his camera on in the vérité-style drama Fish Eyes, now playing during the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Beijing Olympics are underway, but such pageantry is a world removed from Deshui’s harsh desert life. Women are not just scarce here—they are commodities. So when a silent mystery woman appears in their home, it certainly raises the eye-brows of his father. However, her vulnerability brings out the old man’s paternal instinct, perhaps compensating for his rather affectionless relationship with the coolly detached Deshui.

Apparently, Deshui feels the lure of the “new” China, but remains tethered by economic realities to his provincial home. He is constantly looking for shortcuts, falling in with dangerous underworld associates and taking advantage of people, including the woman now sharing his home. Tradition and family ties fail to resonate with him. The personal distance between Deshui and his father even manifests itself physically, when the son is visibly reluctant to stand close to the father for a photo.

Zheng Wei takes us to a lonely, desolate land, which he often films through shimmering mirrors to further distort the viewer’s perspective. Periodically, the radio announces further glorious news from the Beijing games, heightening the sense of displacement. The Olympics might as well be happening on Mars as far as the denizens of the desert are concerned.

Fish’s three leads hold up exceptionally well under the harsh examination of Zheng Wei’s unforgiving lens. Gu Xing-Hong, Shi Pei-Liang, and Shen Meng-Yao are quite remarkable as the taciturn trio, suggesting the emotional ambiguity and complexity of their “family” situation. They truly do not seem like actors, but actual individuals captured on film leading painfully real lives.

Zheng Wei is a patient director, deliberately pacing Fish to evoke the mood and atmosphere of this remote corner of the Chinese desert. Yet, the film never seems to drag, even during a morning festival screening. It is an uncompromisingly naturalistic vision of contemporary China and the desperation of those struggling with the realities of everyday provincial Chinese life. It screens during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29th, 30th, and May 1st.