Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review – Clownfish

June 9, 2011

Clownfish – Taiwan, 2010

First, a rant. There was a time when fewer people spoke English in Taiwan. This was years ago, of course, before Taiwanese students began learning English in kindergarten and before droves of foreigners began coming to Taiwan to both work and study. Nowadays, many Taiwanese people speak English quite well, and English-speaking foreigners can be found island-wide. I’m convinced therefore that somewhere in this mass of humanity someone could have been found with excellent English skills and an interest in helping Taiwanese movies reach a broader audience. In other words, in this day and age, it is an embarrassment for a Taiwanese movie to be released with subtitles as shoddy and incorrect as the ones on the Blu-ray of Charlie Chu’s film Clownfish. They practically guarantee that the film will not be seen outside of Asia, and that’s a shame, for Clownfish is one of the more universally accessible films that I’ve seen come out of Taiwan in quite a while.

The film is about a young man named Wu Guo Yu (Gao Jhih Hong), whose name has brought him nothing but misery. In a flashback, we’re taken back to his first day of school, when a classroom full of students he was meeting for the first time and probably hoping would be friends for life all burst into laughter and proclaim him to be a fish. (Yu means happiness in Chinese, but it can also mean fish) In another scene, we see a group of his classmates surrounding him and proclaiming him to be nothing more than an idiot. Most people who are bullied seek support and protection from a close friend or a parent. Unfortunately, Wu Guo Yu seems to have never made friends, and his father was anything but supportive. It’s not surprising then that Wu Guo Yu grows to be a somewhat awkward adult. He lacks confidence in himself and his response to adversity is to withdraw inward, often into a world that exists only in his mind. His emotions are often so powerful that they force themselves out, finding form in angry conversations between styrofoam cups or between him and his pet fish.

I’ve known people like him before – adults who as children were neglected or verbally abused, adults for whom childhood was a nightmare, an almost constant barrage of insults and disappointments. These experiences indeed take their toll on a person. In some films, Wu Guo Yu would be a comic character, someone like Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors, whose hapless encounters with his two left feet elicit chuckles from the crowd rather that sympathy. Clownfish wisely takes a different path. We never laugh at Wu Guo Yu; rather, we wait patiently for opportunities to laugh or smile with him.

Wu Guo Yu’s life changes after meeting two people. The first is the manager of a clown troupe (Shan Cheung Jiu) called Myth House. He sees Wu watching one of their street performances and recognizes something in him that would make him a decent clown. He eventually becomes Wu’s mentor, helping him both discover the performer within and find a path to happiness. Part of this path involves reconnecting with the child inside, with that juvenile sense of innocence and fun that allows you to experience joy under even the most trying of circumstances. In one touching scene, he introduces Wu to his son, who surprises Wu by giving him a picture he drew in school. Why would he do that to someone he just met? Wu asks. The answer he receives is quite touching.

The other person that alters Wu’s world is Xue Roe (Zhang Ou Hui), a young blind woman Wu meets one day while killing time looking at fish. He is affected by her immediately. She recommends he buy a clown fish, so he does. His visits then become more frequent. During one, he says his fish needs a companion, for it’s not good to be alone. It’s a sentiment that applies equally to Wu and Xue. Like Wu, Xue Roe has also had a difficult life thus far, and she too has withdrawn from society. She finds comfort in familiar surroundings and limits her contacts to her brother and her customers. She dismisses love as something that only causes pain. Sentiments such as these are often the actions and words of someone trying to protect themselves from being hurt, perhaps from even being hurt again. They are sentiments that Wu would easily recognize, and perhaps he does.

Clownfish has its share of problems, starting with the inconsistent audio track. At times, the audio is crystal clear, while at other times, it sounds as if characters are speaking through a box. It’s almost as if the actors recorded their dialogue separately after the final edit was made. There are also a few too many scenes that seem borrowed from other sources. Wu delivers a speech that is reminiscent of Shylock’s great speech reminding people of the similarities of mankind, and there’s a scene in which a character has a conversation with someone who is deceased that seems eerily akin to one in Ray. In addition, the film contains two of the most egregious examples of “an idiot moment” that you’re likely to see. Only in movies would a character simply stand and watch as the woman he cares about walks away from him. It’s even more ludicrous seeing as how she’s blind and in rather unfamiliar surroundings. And only in movies do characters make erroneous snap judgments and then elect not to have the conversation that would so easily have cleared up the resulting misunderstanding.

Still, I enjoyed Clownfish. The film is rather moving at times, and the three leads are all likeable and believable. Also good is Lin Ming Chen as Xue Rou’s extremely supporting brother. In addition, the film is visually spectacular, filled with an assortment of colors that make it seem as if there are two worlds: the normal world that most of us inhabit and the wildly inventive, vibrant world of clowns, who find great joy in transferring their love of life to others. I look forward to seeing what Chu does next.

Recently, I watched Piers Morgan’s interview with Rob Lowe, during which he remarked that many great actors have had difficult childhoods, often as a result of their strained relationship with their fathers. Perhaps this creates so many pent up feelings that they gravitate toward a profession that will allow them to either express or forget themselves temporarily. This was certainly true for me. I found performing to be liberating, whether it was on stage, in front of the camera, on the living room table playing air guitar to the Bee Gees with my brothers, or in front of little kids during my brief stint as a performing clown. So as I watched Clownfish, I could recognize in Wu a man who desperately needed a venue to let it all come out. He finds it as a clown. Hey, stranger things have happened. (on Blu-ray in Region A)

3 stars

*Clownfish is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
*Clownfish was filmed in 3D, and the disc includes both a 3D version and a 2D version of the film. This is a review of the 2D version.

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