A Fish

A Fish


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

You wait decades for a Korean study of fishing, shamanism and metempsychotic mediation, and then in 2011 two come along. Of these, Night Fishing (Paranmanjang) was the attention-grabber thanks to the prominence of its co-director Park Chan-wook, whose films (JSA, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, I'm A Cyborg, Thirst) have made him one of Korea's hottest filmmaking exports. Night Fishing also came with a winning gimmick – a film concerned precisely with mediated long-distance communication (although not in the way you think) that was shot entirely on an iPhone and funded by Korea's telephone provider KT. It won acclaim on the festival circuit, including the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at Berlin. It is also a genuine oddity.

Compared to Chan-wook, writer/director Park Hong-min is a relative unknown. Still a graduate student, Hong-min has only a handful of shorts to his name, and A Fish is his first feature, made on a shoestring. Yet it is a confident metaphysical mystery which, as a calling card, offers a tantalising glimpse into the future of Korean cinema, while coming with a gimmick of its own.

Copy picture

That gimmick is 3D, home-made yet effective and thematically integral. For in the opening scene, as an unmoving camera surveys vehicles speeding by on a motorway, a hand suddenly appears in the foreground, tapping on a window through which we now realise we are watching all this passing traffic. The man in the parked car is Professor Lee Jeon-hyuk, gone AWOL from his university classes to search for his missing wife Ji-yeon. Driving dangerously, parched with a "burning thirst" and unable to find a rest-stop, Jeon-hyuk has pulled over on the kerb. But the policeman's interruption of his roadside reverie has also introduced another dimension to Jeon-hyuk's flat, idling perspective, and revealed a screen (the car's window) that was not apparent before.

It is an apt beginning for a film whose realities are always being disorientingly mediated, and whose protagonist is often looking through windows or mirrors at a world from which he remains at an uncomprehending distance. Here stereoscopy's special depth of field itself reflects a universe of hidden layers and supernatural incursions.

As Jeon-hyuk meets up with the aggressively unbalanced and mercenary detective who is to guide him to Jindo Island – where Ji-yeon has become a shaman – a series of surreal encounters increase our impression that the professor is a Lynchian lost soul, out of his depth and on a transcendent journey through the looking glass. It is an impression aided not only by some extraordinarily eerie sound design, but by the frequent cuts to a pair of fishermen in the fog who discuss how fish perceive their circumstances, only to find an actual fish joining in on the conversation, leading them to be caught hook, line and sinker on a conundrum about the nature and status of their own existence.

Essentially, A Fish dramatises a local Muist ritual of psychopompic purification known as 'Jindo Ssitgim-gut' - only from a unique and unusual perspective. As such, although the film starts off as something like a noirish detective story, by the end it has become a mystery in the ancient sense of that word, bridging, through religious practice, the ineffable divide between life and death. Those who approach it looking for the sorts of thrills associated with the ever-misleading 'Asia extreme' label may leave disappointed by its meandering pace and lack of punch (despite a recurrent slap) - but for viewers on their own search for the truth and meaning that lie behind the veil of a cinema screen, there is nothing quite like A Fish. Nothing, that is, besides Night Fishing...

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2012
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When an academic discovers his missing wife has become a shaman, he fears he is beginning to lose his mind.

Director: Park Hong-min

Writer: Park Hong-min

Starring: Lee Janghoon, Kim Sunbin, Choi Soeun

Year: 2011

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: South Korea


London 2012

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