Fish & Cat (Mahi va Gorbeh): Film Review

The emphasis of masterful technique and mise-en-scene sadly trumps the need for a coherent mood and narrative in a off-kilter take of a slasher premise.

Iranian director Shahram Mokri delivers a single-shot, two-hour-plus film set among a group of university students camping at a lakeside and three middle-aged cooks eyeing the young flesh on offer.

The title of Shahram Mokri's second feature refers to the musical number which soundtracks the film's unseen (and only) act of violence which anchors the film, but it's likely an allusion to its central premise of three rural restaurant operators preying on the urbanite twentysomethings who have descended onto their rural lakeside patch. Fish & Cat hardly boasts of any splash and splutter: Mokri's single-take film is a carefully organized piece of drama made up of interweaving (and sometimes repeated) conversation-driven scenes revealing many a back story of both the stalker and the stalked.

Clocking in at 134 minutes, Fish & Cat is an audacious technical exercise, with Mokri and his team – among them DP Mahmoud Kalari – sketching out the human and camera movements which offers coherence for the multiple scenes purported to reveal additional perspectives and meanings upon their repetition. Their efforts have since been rewarded with a special innovative content award at Venice's Orrizonti sidebar, and then a subsequent run in the festival circuit (including a spot in Busan's A Window on Asian Cinema section and a competition berth at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival in Portugal). International showcases celebrating new independently-funded cinema will undoubtedly follow. (The main business of the film's backers, Karoon Iran Novin, is in advertising.)

What keeps Fish & Cat afloat is intrigue. Despite deflating the tension somewhat with a long introductory intertitle at the beginning of the film – a clichéd account of the rumors swirling around a restaurant serving human flesh – the first half-hour manages to keep things simmering, as two middle-aged men (the bearded Babak Karimi and Saeed Ebrahimifar, perennially in shades) are seen picking at bloodied trash at their dilapidated tavern, bullying a young man asking for directions and then marching off into the forest to check on the traps they laid down while they recount morbid anecdotes – bullet-ridden corpses, spectral voices in a recording – as mundane jokes.

Their conversation is only disrupted as they run into a verbal spar between a man and his son over the former's obsession with his first love and the possibilities of the latter meeting his disapproved-of ex-girlfriend at the kite-flying competition camp he is heading to. It's the first of just a few confrontations between the self-proclaimed hoteliers and the urban contingent arriving on their turf; mostly, the rest of the film gradually unfurls the seemingly complicated human relationships among the young campers, with many  tales involving estranged lovers and paranormal events (including a woman getting an evaluation of her mental stability while openly conversing with the spirit of her deceased journalist boyfriend).

Revisiting several scenes from the same -- or different -- angles, Mokri's play on time and space could have been relevant if these character digressions converged into the study of a singular emotional current or psychological state. Without taking account of this, and with the cannibal-criminals' deeds being let out of the bag at the very beginning of the film, Fish & Cat meanders, with individual characters (and the viewer) catching cursory glimpses of untoward happenings – a strange pair of twins carrying some dead poultry around – and then quickly diverting back to their conversations about tortured histories. With this, the smatterings of horror-flick tropes – the artificially-tinted grey skies, the swelling of tension-driving music, the false alarms foreshadowing a character's demise – frustrate rather than fascinate.

The real torture they will endure is only hinted at near the end, when a previously-seen possession is lying amidst freshly chopped-up meat and when the butcher engages in conversation with a girl whose disappearance is briefly alluded to in an earlier scene. It's a finale which takes too long to arrive – and the daunting accomplishment of having packed so much into a single, more than two-hour take has proved to be Fish & Cat's major flaw. Mokri's eye for dashing aesthetics also renders his film bloated and drifting off-tangent.

Production Company: Kanoon Iran Novin

Director: Shahram Mokri

Cast: Babak Karimi, Saeid Ebrahimifar, Siyavash Cheraghi Pour, Mohammad Berahmani

Producer: Sepher Seifi

Executive Producer: Shahrzad Seifi

Screenwriter: Shahram Mokri

Director of Photography: Mahmoud Kalari

Production Designer: Amir Esbati

Music: Christophe Rezai

Sound: Parviz Abnar

International Sales: Iranian Independents

In Farsi

134 minutes

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