'A Cool Fish' ('Wuming zhibei'): Film Review

Courtesy of Emperor Motion Pictures
Dark comedy that can’t go quite dark enough.

Rao Xiaozhi returns to the dark-comedy well for his sophomore effort, starring Chen Jianbin and Ren Suxi in a standout performance.

Following the grand Chinese screwball comedy tradition blazed by Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone in 2006 and his own 2016 dark comedy mashup The Insanity, the sophomore effort by Rao Xiaozhi revisits the same mix of absurdism, drama and coincidence as his earlier film to the same mixed results. A Cool Fish owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino’s style of interlocking crime narratives, but there’s a distinct thread of criticism of contemporary Chinese society winding through the pic, regardless of how it all ends the “right” way. Polished to a Hollywood shine, the movie should carve out a space for itself on broad spectrum festivals, but it could get buried by bigger, buzzier fall releases, including at home in China.

For all its slapsticky action and heightened reality (the subtitles could use a quick review as well), Cool Fish marries often uncomfortable, dead-serious drama to its hijinks, and it doesn’t always work. Wounded masculine pride, failed ambition, the ceaseless quest for wealth and status, the right to die, public humiliation, remorse and the lack of basic dignity in cutthroat modern China are a lot of balls to juggle, and Rao and co-writer Lei Zhilong only keep a few of them in the air at any given time. Still, when the pic lands its gags (a hilarious bit of amateur first aid), as well as makes its statements (an discomfiting exchange between father and very angry teen daughter over using her mother's surname), it really lands. It would just be nice if Rao and Lei managed to stay on target.

Unfolding in southern Qiaochang (maybe), Cool Fish starts with another great bit of goofy comedy, with two bungling thieves, Cobra, or “Bra” (Zhang Yu), and Big Head (Pan Binlong), ineptly knocking off a cellphone shop and not getting away, as neither is especially adroit with a clutch and their motorbike winds up in a tree. They race off on foot, holing up in the apartment of snarky, potty-mouthed quadriplegic Jiaqi (Ren Suxi), who sees right through the duo’s tough-guy bluster and hollow threats to kill her if she screams. Big Head is just a lovesick softy trying to make enough money to impress his girlfriend and head back to their small hometown. Bra has big ambitions to do…something; he’s not sure what, but whatever it is, it’s going to cost money. He fancies himself a bit of a budding crime lord.

While this battle of wits plays out, across town, disgraced cop and widower security guard Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) clashes with a shady loan shark who wants Ma’s shady developer boss Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui) to give him his money back. In service to Gao, Ma lost his shotgun, which wound up in the hands of Bra — and was used in their robbery. Ma sets out to reclaim the weapon, believing it will help him win back his job on the force. Framing (linking perhaps) these two tracks is Zhenzhen (Ma Yinyin), Big Head’s beloved and a massage parlor hostess that puts Ma on is trail. Oh, and Ma is Jiaqi’s brother.

Set to a jaunty soundtrack by Deng Ouge, all the various threads come together and to a head on the city’s historic Xishan Bridge, where both righteous comeuppance and forgiveness are found, and where all the simmering frustrations at having the wrong education or connections bubble to the surface in a bit of cathartic chaos. Coming as Cool Fish does with Beijing’s seal of approval, it’s hard not to wonder at what kind of truly nihilistic, pitch-black comedy Rao could have come up with had his hand not been forced into honorable resolutions for all his characters — which are generally served well by a strong cast. Chen (just a memorable in the Taiwanese war drama Paradise in Service) toggles between heartbreaking and infuriating in his desperation to regain some semblance of respectability, if only for the sake of his daughter’s future, but the standout here is Ren. As the disabled Jiaqi, a woman who just wants her suffering to end and who is essentially ignored by the world, her aggressive misanthropy — she has nothing to lose — and fearless honesty are a breath of fresh air, and her utter, helpless humiliation at a bladder mishap is as crushing as it is vivid.

Rao has an eye for kooky irony and knows how to get the most from his actors, and he clearly has a few things to say about modern China, but his ambition occasionally exceeds his grasp. Twice in as many films his reliance on “Ah!” coincidence has become exhausting rather than exhilarating. Editing by Joe Zhou and Yang Zhifeng keeps things moving and almost covers the pic’s clunkier bits, like the fuzzy relationship between Ma’s resentful daughter Yiyi (Deng Enxi) and Gao’s crusading son Xiang (Ning Huanyu), who is determined to redeem his father’s name. The remainder of the tech specs are impeccable.

Production company: Shenzhen Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi Culture Communication
U.S. distributor: China Lion
Cast:
Chen Jianbin, Ren Suxi, Pan Binlong, Zhang Yu, Ma Yinyin, Wang Yanhui, Cheng Yi, Ning Huanyu, Deng Enxi, Jiu Kong, Deng Gang
Director: Rao Xiaozhi
Screenwriters: Rao Xiaozhi, Lei Zhilong
Producer: Luca Liang
Executive producer: Albert Yeung, Song Ge, Han Jianv, Sun Lei
Production designer:
Wang Diandian
Costume designer: Lan Bing
Editor: Joe Zhou, Yang Zhifeng
Music: Deng Ouge
World sales:
Emperor Motion Pictures 

In Putonghua
109
minutes