How Is Your Fish Today?

How Is Your Fish Today?

***1/2

Reviewed by: George Williamson

A writer sits in the bleak corner of his building-block apartment, chain smoking and scribbling his latest screenplay; the subject: a man running from a murdered lover and the authorities, seeking Mohe, the most northerly village in China. As the writer's story unfolds on paper, so too does his life in the real world, and as his character journeys to the icy hamlet, so too does the author. What lies in wait for him in the glacial community on the edge of the world?

Although the plot synopsis suggests a literary fantasy of some sort, How Is Your Fish Today? is far from it. You'd be forgiven at the onset for thinking that you were about to see a documentary about Mohe. It opens with interviews with passengers on a northbound train, painting a fantastic portrait of the location.

Copy picture

Some of them say that the inhabitants still have no electricity, that they practically see by the glow of the aurora borealis, enjoying a simple bucolic life of fishing and waving to the Russian sailors on the other side of the border as they cheerfully reel in their catch. There's a sparkle in their eyes when they describe the hard to reach village, like it's the big rock-candy mountain of China.

Xiaolu Guo's film is concerned with the distinction between truth and fiction - or, possibly, reality and propaganda - in the search for knowledge. Parts of the film are shot in a documentary style; the community in Mohe are shown in church, at the shop, catching fish, making dinner, exposing a life that is ice cold, but as mundane as anywhere else.

Other sections feel almost like the work of Wong Kar Wei; beautifully shot and scored, using vibrant colours to highlight the fictional element of the story. In these parts we see the journey of his anti-hero, from a southern hometown, through Beijing, and onward to Mohe, always looking for an escape.

It's a strange fusion, but, considering the protagonist's diatribe on the banning of his work that forces him to write soaps and sitcoms, possibly a necessary one to allow a film with critical content to be made, a form of camouflage for the real points being discussed. One of the few problems with the movie is that Xiaolu Guo's reputation as an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and the fairly obvious subtext ends up detracting from the explicit story, as more time ends up spent trying to analyse and interpret the underlying message than trying to empathise with the characters.

Elements of the film could be interpreted as criticism of censorship in China, but sometimes it's more like a criticism of the cultural erosion that these restrictions on freedom of speech are causing and the homogenisation of society even in the far corners of the world. It could also be examined as a piece on the disillusionment of youth, always searching for new pastures, forever discovering that, in retrospect, the grass only appears greener on the other side.

Regardless of how it is interpreted How Is Your Fish Today? is a fascinating film for anyone interested in China or progressive documentary filmmaking, but probably not one for those expecting a metaphysical journey into the unknown or a strong story.

Reviewed on: 23 Nov 2006
Share this with others on...
Critical documentary in dramatic camouflage?

Director: Xiaolu Guo

Writer: Xiaolu Guo, Hui Rao

Starring: Rao Hui, Zang Yulang

Year: 2006

Runtime: 83 minutes


Search database: