Friday, February 11, 2011

David Kaplan's original and wonderful YEAR OF THE FISH makes a belated DVD debut

Trailing one of those "success" stories that many young filmmakers would die for, YEAR OF THE FISH, after wining awards at various film festivals, opened at New York's Angelika Film Center at the end of August 2008 to a set of simply lovely reviews. Almost nobody (including your truly) came to see it, however, and the film was yanked a week later without being given ample time to build its audience. Fortunately, its distributor Gigantic Pictures also streamed the movie, which, back then, in the early days of streaming, probably got it to the attention of at least a few more viewers that did its very limited theatrical release. Now, two-and-one-half years later, the "Fish" is finally making its DVD debut.  It proves more than worth the wait.

The film, from a young writer/director named David Kaplan (shown at left) is an original. It does not compare to anything TrustMovies can readily call to mind. Jumping off from one of history's most famous fairy tales --  but setting it in a New York Chinatown massage parlor (so it's not for kids or the sexually uptight) -- it is filmed in the Rotoscope animation process, used by movies as varied as Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Fire and Ice, among many others. From even this short list, it's clear that the animation style can vary wildly from one film to another, and Year of the Fish indeed falls into a "look" that is very much its own. Often realistic (at times it seems just a step away from live action), it is also highly impressionistic, using a brilliantly colorful palette and scene changes made by heavy artist brush strokes that literally "paint" over the screen.

Kaplan's combination of fairy tale elements with adult situations make for a decidedly unusual mix. "Look: he's saying 'hello'!" our heroine's first customer at the massage parlor tells her as he turns around, full-frontal, to face her. The filmmaker also ensures that these situations ring true: the new immigrant from China, a signed contract, forced servitude, her employers' holding on to her passport, and so forth.

Along with the realism come the fantasy elements --some are dark ("pet"-ricide and a sweatshop ruled over by a vengeful deity, below) and some sweet (our hero, at left, is a handsome, kind, old-fashioned musician who even takes good care of his grandmother) -- yet the two coincide surprisngly well. One of the dearest, smartest touches is to have the film narrated by a fish, whose deprecating ruminations provide humor, wit and the loveliest and most profound of philosophical endings -- one that combines that fairy tale with eastern religion (the filmmaker's take on it, at least) and even a bit of Goodnight Moon in its graceful nod to (and understanding of) all the characters -- even those we thought we hated.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Kaplan went on to make the recently released, feel-good food movie Today's Special, which had its admirers, though I was not among them. I'm glad I did not realize that the same director made both movies, or I might have neglected to see his earlier work -- a film which, if I'd caught upon its theatrical release, I would have ranked with the best that 2008 had to offer. One word of warning: The unusual animation process may initially put you off, as it did my companion -- who stopped watching within five minutes. I would suggest you give it a further shot, for once the movie takes hold,  it will not easily let you go. Available now for sale or rental, The Year of the Fish may very well be a classic.

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