Fish and Elephant (2001) 今年夏天
02/11/2010 Leave a comment
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Li Yu
Starring: Pan Yi, Shitou, Zhang Qianqian, Zhang Jilian
Theme: LGBT Issues
2002 Berlin International Film Festival
2001 Venice Film Festival
2002 Berlin International Film Festival: Best Asian Film Prize (Forum of New Cinema)
2002 Berlin International Film Festival: NETPAC Special Mention
2001 Venice Film Festival: Elvira Notari Prize
The Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema is an “edgy underground film movement” that is characterized by quick and cheap filming processes, thereby creating a documentary feel akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité techniques than the lush everyday realism of the Fifth Generation films. Names like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye have been bandied around, but here’s a question: can Li Yu be considered a Sixth Generation filmmaker as well? Yes, she is new, with Fish and Elephant (2001) being her debut feature film. It bears certain aesthetic trademarks of a film by a Sixth Generation filmmaker, with a pseudo-cinema vérité technique that involves amateurish, unpolished cinematography. There are many long takes with a motionless camera. Many scenes, like the dinner scene around [29:00] appear underexposed, the minimal lighting casting low light on faces, as the two leads secretly clasp hands under the table. Li Yu is also plucky and audacious in her movie themes. Fish and Elephant (2001), for instance deals with the still-taboo topic of same-sex relationships. In fact, it is the first Mainland Chinese film to broach the topic of lesbian relationships, thus casting a spotlight on this marginalized group of society that is affected by their own personal disorientation away from social norms, and that mainstream society casts an unapproving eye on as an evil brought about by Western imperialisation and globalization. Further, the film was an “underground” production filmed on 16mm and that was made without any official support, and which was not submitted to the censors for approval. Further, Li Yu casted non-professional actors whom she found from visiting lesbian bars (Kraicer, 2002).
The only tangible link to the animal references in the movie title is the animals under the care of the two lead protagonists, Xiaoqun (Pan Yi) and Xiaoling (Shi Tou). They are two single women. Xiaoqun is an elephant keeper at the zoo keeps a tank of fish in her tiny apartment. The fish die later, but allusions to relationship changes are difficult to draw. After all, why did something happen to the fish but nothing to the elephant? Meanwhile, her mother, clueless to her sexuality, tries to matchmake her with a string of eligible bachelors and even spins a positive light on her chain smoking to the ills and stresses of everyday life. Many of the bachelors were actually recruited via fake ads placed by the director, says Li Yu. This implies that the conversations were unscripted and partially improvised, and the pseudo-vérité technique an indication of such a drama might unfold in reality. Xiaoling is a clothes designer and she sells her own clothing at a stall in an indoor market. She chooses to hike up or lower the prices of her clothes at her own whim and fancy, depending on whether she likes the customer or not. The two women meet, and they fall in love. The mother can only struggle to accept the sexuality of her daughter, and her favorite song by retro Chinese star Cui Jian ironically goes “It’s not that I cannot understand, it’s just this world that’s changing too quickly”.
It is very unfortunate that Li Yu tries to over-achieve in the movie rather than stick to a single thread as that of East Palace, West Palace (1996) by Zhang Yuan – China’s first homosexual film that made it to Cannes Film Festival 1997 as part of the Un Certain Regard competition. We see the sudden introduction of an ex-girlfriend who is on the run from the authorities, presumably because of robbing a bank but in actuality because of murdering her father who raped her during her teenage years. The final climactic scene is not so much between the two lead protagonists, but involve a police stand-off with the ex-girlfriend wielding a gun. Admittedly, though, credit has to be given where it’s due – Li Yu managing to pull off such a big effort despite being an underground production.
Li Yu divulges in an interview that the pair was in actuality a real-life couple who split following the completion of the movie. Whether or not this bears testament to the closeted nature of Chinese society and how homosexuality issues remain taboo begets debate, as we do not know whether it is because of the pair succumbing to societal norms within the puritanical state.
After Fish and Elephant, Li Yu went on to direct her sophmore film Dam Street (2005), a film that involves French collaboration that broaches yet another controversial topic of underage sex and pregnancy. Erstwhile, her third and latest film Lost in Beijing (2007) deals with prostitution, blackmail and rape in the modern-day Beijing context. But one thing is for sure – Li Yu’s films have been wildly popular in the film festival circuit. All of her films have featured amid the Top Three Film Festivals of the world, with Dam Street (2005) premiering in Venice and Lost in Beijing (2007) premiering in Berlin. Fish and Elephant (2001) however even manages to buck the trend of being featured in a single Top Three Film Festival screening, having been shown at both Venice in 2001 and Berlin subsequently in 2002.
Kraicer, S. (2002). Fish and Elephant: review by Shelly Kraicer. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from http://www.chinesecinemas.org/fishandelephant.html