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November 18, 2009

SDFF 2009 - Fish Eyes

fish eyes.jpg

Yu Yan
Zhang Wei - 2009
Benten Films 35mm film

There is a scene in Fish Eyes when most of the action is seen as the reflection on a mirror. The mirror, the full-length kind usually found in bathrooms, is precariously propped outside a building. A trio of motorbike riders, each with a buddy hanging on the back, circle the courtyard, closing in on the mirror. The mirror is shaking from the vibrations created by the bikes. Suspense is created in wondering when or if the mirror will shatter. The shot is composed so that the riders and bikes are only partially visible, with a more full view of the riders fleetingly visible on the mirror.

The scene could be a key to understanding Fish Eyes. The story, as such, is not one of direct exposition, but of partially seen and sometimes unseen events. The main characters are a man, his son, and a young woman. The man, called an "old geezer" by one of the bike riding thugs, might be in his late Forties or Fifties. His son and the mute young woman are possibly in their early Twenties. The son has apparently angered the leader of a small gang of thugs for sleeping with the leader's girlfriend. It is also later revealed that the woman has escaped from a mental institution. The story elements should suggest a film more melodramatic than Fish Eyes. Zhang Wei strips away the more obvious devices for a more indirect form of story telling.


Fish Eyes was shot in Mongolia, on High Definition video, the debut film by Zhang Wei. Some reviews of the film refer to Jia Zhang-Ke, but what links Zhang with Jia, and young Chinese filmmakers like Nelson Yu Lik-wai or Zhao Dayong, is the choice to make more personal films on video. Part of this is simply economics, because it is significantly less expensive than film, and there is a smaller support team needed for production. Also, with less money involved, the filmmaker can be allowed greater autonomy. The films can be made with little, if any, government interference. But any attempt to link Zhang Wei with any kind of "wave" of filmmakers is both facile, and misleading.

While Fish Eyes does not look like the films by other Chinese filmmakers, its subject matter can be argued to be archetypically Chinese based on theories presented by Rey Chow. In her book, Sentimental Fabulations: Contemporary Chinese Films, Chow lists the elements to be found in most Chinese language films, and states, ". . . the heart-wrenching situations that many many films dramatize include poverty, interpersonal and intergenerational conflicts, separation, exile, illness, death and loneliness - situations in which quotidian living itself can take on the weight of imprisonment or assault . . .". Other filmmakers have created stories about people removed from the economic and cultural changes in contemporary China. For Zhang Wei, the truth about a situation is not always to be found by what is clearly in front of us.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 18, 2009 12:56 AM