A COOL FISH (2018) review

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A sleeper hit in China, Rao Xiaozhi’s A Cool Fish interlocks narratives as we follow Cobra (Zhang Yu) and Big Head (Pan Binlong), two hapless criminals who rob a cellphone shop with a stolen gun, run away on a motorbike without knowing the phones they’ve stolen are just non-functioning models for show, and then must keep running away on foot after when their motorbike ends up in a tree due to a clumsy maneuver. They end up in the appartment of Jiaqi (Ren Suxi), a quadriplegic who has given up on life, and is thus not impressed by their attempts at intimidation. Meanwhile, Jiaqi’s brother Xianyong (Chen Jianbin), who was fired from the police and now works as a security guard for property developer Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), sets off to find his lost shotgun, which is none other than the one used by Cobra and Big Head in their attempt at a robbery. And Xianyong’s daughter, who harbors a world of resentment against him, is trying to cool down her boyfriend Xiang (Ning Huanyu), the son of Gao Ming, who wants to go up against the loan sharks who are threatening his father.

Much like Cao Baoping did with his Cock and Bull, or Li Yu with Absurd Accident a year later, Rao Xiaozhi transposes to China with A Cool Fish a filmic grammar reminiscent of the Coen Brothers: a kind of sweet, offbeat cynicism, a blending of slapstick into tragedy, a tragicomic examination of what it is to be a loser. It’s a fine subgenre in Chinese cinema, the rare kind of Chinese comedy that can truly resonate beyond Chinese audiences, despite some very local shades in the dialogues and references, that can fly over most foreign audiences’ heads. Censorship is a problem, however: A Cool Fish is constrained, much like the aforementioned films by Cao and Li, by the need for a moral, government-approved coda, where its amoral, ruthlessly funny leanings should give way to a less clean, aseptic ending.

Still, there’s considerable delights – dark or sweet or both – to be found here: the funniest and most affecting subplot is the one in which the two hapless criminals seek refuge in the quadriplegic Jiaqi’s home, try to intimidate her to no avail, then gradually bond with her. Zhang Yu is hilarious as an ambitious but clueless thug, forming a duo to remember with Pan Binlong as a much less ambitious but even clueless-er sidekick, who doesn’t realize that his girlfriend is a prostitute. Ren Suxi, in only her third film (after Mr Donkey and Absurd Accident), is proving to be one of the finest actresses of her generation, with her impeccable, deadpan comic timing here enriched by a superbly affecting dramatic ability. And Chen Jianbin is great fun as the salty, impulsive security guard, an adept of tough love in search of respectability. But not all subplots are satisfactorily developed, with Wang Yanhui as the fleeing developer, and Deng Enxi as the bitter daughter, factoring in quite weakly into the film, and almost shoe-horned into the finale.

Long Story Short: A Cool Fish is a fine black comedy, carried by an excellent cast but curtailed in its final reel by the need for censorship approval. ***1/3

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