Film Review: Old Fish

BOTTOM LINE: A hero who applies fishing skills to bomb detonation has viewers hooked.

Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- Two days in the life of a rank-and-file cop suddenly called upon to detonate 11 bombs make for an absolutely riveting police thriller in "Old Fish." Top-rated TV director Gao Qunshu presents the affecting portrait of an ordinary old trooper, whose unsung heroism is rewarded through a fateful confluence of events. The film deservedly won Grand Jury Prix and Best Actor award in Shanghai International Film Festival's main competition. The story could be transplanted to overseas settings of rural backwaters, but an unglamorous cast and humdrum background may not arouse much foreign sales interest.

The title is the nickname of protagonist, Yu (Ma Guowei), whose hobby is catching puny fish in frozen rivers to make a stewed delicacy. As a cop, he is himself small fry in a small pond. His skill with fish hooks and knowledge of stray World War II landmines become handy when a string of unidentified time bombs are found scattered around town.

Tension is allowed to rise naturally from the situations as Yu tackles his targets like Hercules' 12 labors. The slap-dash way the explosives are cobbled together is matched by the primitive detonation methods he employs. There's also comic relief, when he uses his bargaining power to get showers upgraded each time the stakes are raised.

The crime scenes, all real locations, are highly atmospheric. The first is an illegal chicken factory, dank with dripping tanks where foul carcasses float about -- a scenario to trigger bird flu fears. Further sequences are choreographed around tenements with rickety stairs, junk-filled courtyards and roofs with loosening tiles. Human vulnerability juxtaposed to inhumane risks creates edge-of-your seat suspense.

Yu's bravery is underpinned by personal motive: to help his son get into police academy. This desperate hope adds poignant social realism to an ending which is unexpected yet credible.

Gao Qunshu observes with a photo-journalist's eye the cold, wizened Heilongjiang landscape on the Chinese-Russian border, where life is a heavy trawl even without bomb scares. The cast, including knock-out lead Ma, are all policemen from that municipality. They out-do seasoned actors.

Longjian Film Studio, Tianjian Film Studio present/a Heilongjiang Province Police production

Cast: Ma Guowei, Hu Xiaolin, Pan Xingyi, Chi Qiang, Lan Jinglin, Gu Erli.

Director: Gao Qunshu.
Screenwriter: Lan Jinglin.
Producer: Ren Huanqi
Executive producers: Fan Zhansheng, Sun Yusheng.
Director of photography: Luo Pan.
Production designer: Xiao Haihang.
Costume designers: Liu Hong, Li Li.
Editor: Yang Hongyu.
Sales: Creative Artists Agency/Tianjin Film Studio.
No rating, 113 minutes.