HKAFF 2011: BLOWFISH Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
The central analogy in Lee Chi Yuarn's BLOWFISH is an obvious one - our heroine Xiao Zhun (newcomer Vicci Pan) is a prisoner in an urban aquarium of her own making, as isolated and vulnerable as the exotic fish her boyfriend catches and sells online. She works in a pristine and ultramodern shopping centre as an elevator attendant. In stark contrast to the building's cutting edge design, her role is somewhat archaic and heavily ritualized. Using precise and well-rehearsed movements, she greets, smiles and bows to her passengers, always in the exact same impersonal way in order to, ironically, ensure patrons feel welcome and pampered during their visit. 

When she returns from work early one afternoon to discover her boyfriend in bed with another woman, Xiao Zhun is almost too repressed to react at all. When she receives an online bid for their latest blowfish, she travels out into the sticks where there is an instant, almost primal attraction between her and the quiet yet handsome young baseball coach (Wu Kang Jen) who made the offer. They make wild, passionate love and Xiao Shun decides to stay, only to discover the young coach is harbouring deep emotional wounds of his own.

A film primarily about lonely, emotionally damaged people attempting to find a connection in a world that has no time for them, BLOWFISH is a surprisingly beautiful film and while it takes its time getting there, a warmhearted one too. Xiao Chun's willingness to be submissive in order to make her partner happy leaves her terrifyingly vulnerable to both mental and physical abuse. However, Lee Chi Yuarn seems to have little interest in making a film about manipulation, sadism or psychosexual relationships, when he could have done so all too easily. 

I'm not sure what it says about this reviewer, but perhaps Lee should have ventured into more extreme territory. This disciplined restraint means the film doesn't really do enough. The relationship between Xiao and the nameless coach is not exploitative, but it doesn't go the other way and become overtly romantic either. Instead it drifts along somewhere between the two, as this awkward introverted couple attempts to find a bond and a connection, and hopefully love.

That is not to say there is nothing to appreciate in the film, far from it. Lee beautifully captures the clean open space of the Taiwanese countryside, juxtaposing it with the glass prison of Xiao's workplace. Her pokey apartment couldn't be further removed from the breezy spacious rustic environs of the coach's abode, bathed in sunlight and adorned with billowing, brightly coloured garments. 

Vicci Pan is almost tragically frail and weak-willed as the sweet-natured yet desperate Xiao, who wants nothing more than fresh air to breathe and someone who'll love her. Wu Kang Jen gives solid support, although admittedly his is the passive role around which the ladies fuss and flutter. He is handsome and brooding enough to see why the ladies are interested but perhaps not quite three-dimensional enough to fully convince the audience. And perhaps this is the same criticism that should be leveled at the film as a whole. 

BLOWFISH is attractive and clearly has merit, but beyond its opening act of rebellion and ravenous lust, the film never takes its premise far enough to either extreme, meaning the potentially explosive finale does little more than gently fizzle out.
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