Tribeca 2009: "Fish Eyes" (Zheng, China)

There's a house in Fish Eyes, and a mirror which is later broken and reused, a somewhat junky motorcycle, a strangely new guitar, an underused washing bowl, and a small dining table with three chairs in a room that doubles as the bedroom for the father of the house. These things acquire weight in the film, where little is said and almost less done. Living in the kind of house-at-the-crossroads one imagines when picturing westerns like Comanche Station or even Hawks' Rio Bravo, of those lingering respites poised between the wilderness and civilization that people have to live in, and as such make their own, a father and his son eke out a barely communal existence between the Mongolian desert and a glum, dusty town spied usually only from its walled outskirts. There is little happiness and little happens, but each live their life, the father around the house (he seems to be in charge of operating the minimalist gate that keeps trucks from the city out of an unseen construction site nearby) and the son escapes so frequently to the city that director Zheng Wei deems it unimportant to know what he is up to. But, judging by his youthful age and his motorcycle and that this is a Chinese film made by a young director, we know it can't be good. The instinct proves true: a mysterious girl shows up, thugs from the town seem at least a little miffed by her hiding out with the son in this lonely place, and we see Fish Eyes list inevitably towards genre and plot. But barring the girl’s overly affected performance, the film's poised but unpretentious attention to the tenor of the places and the things that make up these people's uneventful lives makes Zheng’s debut a welcome treat. With a master-shot visual style and narrative minimalism akin to the Jia Zhangke side of the 6th generation filmmakers, Zheng creatively expresses qualities of emotion and character through the interaction of these three people with objects in their lives, letting us find things out for ourselves by the way dinner is served and the sound of it being eaten, the treatment of a mirror, and the moral qualities of work at the edge of the human world what kind of people these are, and what kind of place this is to live in. A small film, Fish Eyes keeps its ambitions down to—but attuned to and given weight by—the tenor of different kinds of people making due when it is so obvious that nothing is going to change. So the way one makes do, the morality of it and its feeling, remains, and Zheng’s little film understands this grand sentiment with remarkably simple and material means.

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  • Edwin Mak

    Thanks for the write up of this Daniel, I shall have to wait till it appears on British shores, in anticipation…

  • Michael Guillen

    Lovely write-up, Daniel. You have such a gift for language. Received a press release from Benten Films this morning that advised they have picked up Fish Eyes for North American, UK and European distribution.

    “When I first saw the film, I knew I had stumbled upon a major talent,” said Benten President Andrew Grant, adding, “It’s almost hard to believe that a film this beautiful and understated is the work of a newcomer. That it was shot in only eighteen days, and for less than $40,000, is staggering.”

    Benten will work with Seong on securing a theatrical run, a first for the DVD-only label. “The film is too vital—and frankly, too gorgeously shot—to not give it a chance on the big screen,” said Benten VP Aaron Hillis. “We’re truly thrilled about entering the theatrical market, and with such a strong title to make that leap.”

    I’m heartened to know it will eventually wind its way West.

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