Monday, January 10, 2011

Review – Tropical Fish

January 10, 2011

Tropical Fish – Taiwan, 1995

There’s a moment in Tropical Fish when a female teacher tells her students that if they fail an upcoming exam, their lives will be ruined forever. It’s a message that seems a bit harsh but is no less real. The test she is referring to is the national exams which determine what senior high school students will attend. Some of these schools have reputations for excellence, and students who attend them are thought to be smarter and more hardworking. Other schools have the stigma of being where poor-performing students go, and they do not look good on a resume. This hardly seems fair, and many people in Taiwan, as well as a few characters in the film itself, have been arguing that the testing system needs to be changed for some time. Good luck.

The teacher is just one of the interesting, colorful characters we meet in Chen Yu-Hsun’s excellent 1995 film Tropical Fish. In the same scene, she asks her students how many of them think they’re going to fail the upcoming national exam. When most of her students raise their hands, she lashes out at them verbally, proclaiming them cowards. Then she tells them a story about a student who didn’t give up, who studied hard, overcame adversity, and passed the test. The message being that if he could do it, they can do it too. She then asks how many of them think they’ll fail now. Guess how many of them raise their hands a second time? You guessed it – none. The students are probably too afraid, which is actually understandable, as this is a teacher in the habit of slamming a long measuring stick on a student’s hands when he gives the wrong answer. I guess she believes that pain and fear are powerful motivators.

The central character in Tropical Fish is Liu Zhi-qiang, a young dreamer who would rather spend his free time hanging out with friends and playing video games. When he’s not doing these things, he’s writing romantic letters to a classmate that he has developed a crush on and imagining stories involving magical hearing aids and vast oceans of tropical fish. He is not a very good student, and this causes great embarrassment for his father. In one particularly telling scene, we see him trying to inspire his son by yelling at him. His mother uses a different tact – preparing food for him that is said to be good for your memory. Later at a parent-teacher conference, Zhi-qiang’s father nervously peaks at the papers of other students to see how his child’s score compares to theirs. What we do not see them do is help their child study.

The first part of the film takes place in Taizhung, an area of Taiwan in which there were a lot of kidnappings during the 1990’s. And one such kidnapping is at the heart of Tropical Fish. A seven-year-old boy that Zhi-qiang plays video games with is kidnapped, and Zhi-qiang is convinced that the two creepy men he saw buying food for him the previous day are the culprits. Inspired by his very active imagination and video games in which he gets to play the hero, he decides to try to rescue the boy himself. As a result of his efforts, he is taken hostage as well. The second half of the film takes place in Dongshi, an area in southern Taiwan that floods frequently. There, Ah-Ching, one of the kidnappers (the other has died), struggles with the question of what to do with the two boys now that everything has gone wrong. A kind man who just happened to get involved with the wrong person, he informs his family of the situation and together they try to decide what to do. They do not appear to be dangerous, yet in truth, they could use some money. Their home is flooded, and they are desperate to come up with enough money to send the youngest sibling to school. From news reports, they learn that Zhi-qiang is supposed to take his exam within two weeks, and strangely that fact changes everything. Time is of the essence, and Zhi-qiang simply must be returned quickly. The million dollar question, of course, is how.

Tropical Fish is one of those rare films that does everything right. Extremely funny and filled with memorable and realistic characters, the film will likely make viewers reflect upon social and political issues. Viewers may at first find it odd that a father talks so much about his son taking a test when his very survival is in question, yet upon reflection, this act seems perfectly natural, even touching. The events in the film also serve as an education for Zhi-qiang, as a way of teaching him what is truly important in life. Towards the end of the film, Zhi-qiang reads a letter from a young woman named Ah-Juan which is both heartbreaking and inspirational. I watched the scene twice, and each time it got to me. Watch Zhi-qiang’s expression in the scene. It’s clear that he’s gotten the message.

The cast of Tropical Fish is particularly strong. Lin Chen-Sheng gives a great performance as Liu Zhi-qiang. The rest of the cast, including Wen Ying, Lien Pi-Tong, Hsiao Tsao Ku, and Shi Ching Luen, is excellent as well. Mrs. Pi is especially funny as an older woman whose has lost touch with reality. In other hands, such a portrayal might seem insensitive. Here, it’s handled with sensitivity and respect, allowing the audience to laugh at humorous moments. Tropical Fish was director Chen Yu-Hsun’s debut film after working on television for some time. He has made only two other films since, the most recent one being 2010’s Juliets. Because of how much his first film impressed me, I plan to find time to see them as well. Tropical Fish may be hard for people to find, but it’s well worth the effort it takes to see it. Simply put, films like this don’t come around very often. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 and a half stars

*Tropical Fish is in Mandarin and Min Nan with English subtitles.

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