'Fish Bones': Film Review | Slamdance 2018

Courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival
Too insubstantial to make a lasting impression.

Fashion model Joony Kim stars as a culturally conflicted young woman in Joanne Mony Park's first feature.

New York-based Korean fashion model Joony Kim makes her feature acting debut as a college student ambivalently exploring her sexuality in Joanne Mony Park's relationship drama Fish Bones. Spare directing, minimalistic performances and ultra-low-budget production values tip this as primarily a festival item but could succeed in generating ongoing interest off its Slamdance world premiere.

Favoring a nonlinear narrative style, Park introduces Hana (Kim), who comes home on winter break to New York City to assist her ailing epileptic mother (Borah Ahn) and older brother (Christopher Kim) with running the family's Korean barbecue restaurant. She also returns to modeling part-time to earn some extra cash behind her disapproving mother's back. On a shoot one day, she meets Nico (Cris Gris), a Latina indie music producer, who takes an immediate and intense interest in Hana.

Flattered by the attention, Hana begins spending more time with Nico, who gradually reveals her romantic inclinations. As the two fall into a tentative relationship, Hana struggles to reconcile the expectations of her traditionally minded family with her newfound attraction for Nico. Her growing uncertainty leads to inevitable conflict when Nico questions the extent of Hana's commitment, forcing her to confront some difficult choices as the date for her return to classes approaches.

Although Park positions Hana's central struggle as an attempt to reconcile her conservative cultural values with her emerging gay identity, the character's fundamental conflict may actually be her chronic self-absorption. Hana's successful modeling career affirms her status as an in-demand young woman trading on her good looks, but she doesn't demonstrate much individuality beyond her on-set persona. Although her relationship with Nico begins naturally enough, Hana rarely has the words to express her own feelings or uncertainties, withdrawing into solitude when she can't deal with her unresolved emotions.

Kim realistically demonstrates Hana's level of reflexive self-centeredness and her growing unease with Nico's expectations, but her restrained performance never catalyzes the underlying personal, cultural and sexual issues confronting the character. Actor-director Gris seems more comfortable with Nico's sexuality, although she's similarly hesitant to express overt opinions and emotions.

The film's overall level of restraint, however, could be principally attributable to Park's preference for indirect commentary rather than outright confrontation. By limiting her characters to terse and often oblique exchanges, Park conceals motivational intent, relying more on the sparse emotional content of individual scenes to convey meaning.

As the two characters strain to connect across a widening romantic divide, Park distances them further with starkly rigid camera techniques. Intentional manipulation of the film's timeline obscures key plot developments by cutting deeply into scenes and shuffling events out of chronological order, drawing attention to the editorial process rather than enhancing the narrative's emotional impact.

 

Cast: Joony Kim, Cris Gris, Borah Ahn, Christopher Kim

Director-writer: Joanne Mony Park

Producers: Mary Evangelista, Joanne Mony Park

Director of photography: Sheldon Chau

Production designers: Rosa Callejas, Milena Luna

Editor: Joanne Mony Park

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Feature Film Competition)

Not rated, 82 minutes