How is Your Fish Today? (2006) Movie Review

4 Comments

“How Is Your Fish Today?” began life as a British-commissioned Chinese documentary about Mohe, a small village in the northernmost part of China , lying on the Russian border. However, when the crew reached Mohe, a supposedly mystical town where it’s light twenty hours out of the day and the aurora borealis sweeps across the sky, they discovered that it is nothing but a poor fishing village where people live just above the poverty line. Rather than abandon the film due to lack of footage, director Xiaolou Gou synergised what she had filmed with a script written by a friend about a screenwriter searching for inspiration by travelling to Mohe. The result: a film that confidently occupies the shadow land between fiction and reality.

We follow screenwriter Hui Rao (who is actually played by the film’s writer) as he starts work on a script where the protagonist is Lin Hao, a man who has just killed his girlfriend and is fleeing across the country, before eventually ending up in Mohe. We see the character of Lin Hao as Hui Rao imagines him, and as the film progresses the screenwriter and his character become increasingly alike. Tired of living vicariously through his own screenplay, Hui Rao leaves his home town of Beijing and travels to Mohe, a place that he has idealised since he was a schoolboy. However, once there, the romanticism of Mohe vanishes, leaving nothing for Hui Rao to see but vast acres of snow and melancholy villagers trapped by poverty in the middle of nowhere.

It takes a while to adjust to the movie’s style; for the first fifteen minutes or so all I did was try to work out whether what I was seeing was real or fictitious. It’s safe to assume that 90% of “How is Your Fish Today?” is fact; Hui Rao is a real screenwriter, the people interviewed on the train to Mohe are real people and yes, Mohe is a real place. However this is hard to realise because the scenes in which Hui Rao imagines the life of Lin Hao are shot in a very similar way to scenes of the real-life Mohe villagers, and there is no visible difference in style between the two. This documentary style is adopted all the way through to the end, where it perversely becomes cinematic.

But it helps not to over think these things. It is better to let “How is Your Fish Today?” take you where it wants to take you: on a journey with Hui Rao to possibly the most enigmatic village on Earth. And, for the most part, “How is Your Fish Today?” is a brilliantly constructed analysis of the flaws of romanticism. Hui Rao’s purpose for writing his script was to see Mohe. However, having built up a mental image since he was young of a beautiful place lit only by strings of torches, it’s no surprise when he finds his ideas shattered by the real thing.

Having seen the destitution of the village, Hui Rao becomes just as trapped as the inhabitants of Mohe; he is bored by his life in Beijing , and has seen that his perfect town is worse than the place he was trying to escape. Xiaolou Gou highlights this with an effective use of anticlimax, in an ending that is as abrupt as it is dream-like, literally joining the real and the imaginary together.

The only problem with “How is Your Fish Today?” is that it loses focus towards the end. What was, for two thirds of the movie, a bildungsroman of a depressed writer becomes a completely different film once we get to Mohe. Instead of continuing the story of Hui Rao, it takes a break from it to concentrate on the people of Mohe. At this point “How is Your Fish Today?” stops being an analysis of romanticism, and starts being an analysis of China ‘s bizarre social climate, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy, and the poor are extremely poor.

Although hinted at earlier in the film, this angle comes more or less out of nowhere, and doesn’t really fit in with the previous themes already presented. However since “How is Your Fish Today?” is a composite of two different films, I feel that this was probably the focus of Gou’s original documentary, but didn’t necessarily fit in with Hui Rao’s script. But while this change in focus is erratic, it is nevertheless interesting.

An innovative narrative, beautiful imagery, gritty truths and good philosophy make “How is Your Fish Today?” an outstanding piece of cinema. And even though it does flounder a bit towards the end, it’s still a very worthwhile watch that I would recommend to anyone.

Xiaolu Guo (director) / Xiaolu Guo, Hui Rao (screenplay)
CAST: Xiaolu Guo …. Mimi
Ning Hao …. Hu Ning
Hui Rao …. Hui Rao
Zijiang Yang …. Lin Hao


Buy How is Your Fish Today on DVD

Author: Andrew Mackenzie

  • Viorel Florea

    A Comment from A Fellow Escapee

    Criticism of the royalty was not permitted during the middle-ages France, and that’s how the literary form of Fable came about. In it animals take the place of and symbolize humans to indirectly criticize them; so this film is a modern days’ fable of life in China, where the direct criticism of the Communist ideology and leadership is not permitted.
    I lived half of my life in Communism, although in Romania, not in China, before escaping to freedom, but I cannot begin to tell you how close to home this movie hit me! Just as its structure is designed to be, this film should be seen and understood on many different levels.
    This documentary bears the value of a message smuggled out from inside a jail that happens to be of the size of a country. It takes not just a masterful writer to depict the life inside tyranny, but he must do so in a “code” meant to make it pass by the customary Communist censorship on its way IN AND/OR OUT of jail: OUT to let the story be known to the world and IN to let the hungry have a taste that there is much more to the world outside than a sad daily diet of fish! But at the same time, the message, which must avoid censor, must make it in a vividly obvious form to the attention of an unprejudiced reader. How does one accomplish this? Perhaps it is not fully possible for the whole message to make it out and be “de-codified” in its entirety by men who have never lived in oppression: Free men can hardly imagine the utter loneliness and spiritual void of living in a limited world of Communist totality. It is like living inside an ideological laboratory experimenting of unwilling humans, to try devoid them of hope and of the normal desires for the endless variety of colors, sounds and events in a free society. Like in the film, nothing is permitted without control, not even dating more than one person at a time, which if observed by neighbors, it can trigger the arrest of our young culpable woman by the people’s militia. Our character thankfully escapes by dissipating himself into the limitless yet un-descript universe of Beijing. Seeking individuality, no matter how small, the writer goes shopping for a winter hat and is trying one on while the store assistant comments that it makes him look very much like a well know Communist hero… “very becoming!” A jail is a jail no matter its size! A big one is just that: more of the same no matter how far you venture within its walls. The fish is the sameness, the lack of variety, of options and of choices. It is what the daily life in China feels like to an intellectually hungry young man, looking for more, for answers beyond the strict social fence. There is no mention of the word “freedom” of any kind (which must be understood that it would have never made it pass censorship), yet to a prejudiced observer as I, one can almost feel its energy building itself up; or perhaps it is only the observer’s optimism who wants it that way!
    Interestingly, the fish is always dead or dieing; the fish is definitely not happy! The very symbol of exhausting resources.
    The sameness is even bigger than that big country, for it reaches beyond the very strict limits of borders (it must be noted that in Communism, frontier lines are tantamount to ends of earth, not to be crossed or even approached) and it shows that in Russia, too, it appears to be more about the same fish (to me, a vivid extrapolation of life lived under the same conditions; Russian and Chinese fishermen talking across the border about the only thing they have in common with one another;
    But, it was that young couple out for a walk in the bitter cold in Beijing, hands in their pockets, empty streets, countless uninviting benches, patches of snow swept by wind, not a soul in sight and nowhere else to go, that reminded me of what my life as a young student has been in Bucharest in the 70’s, where it was, too, illegal for an unmarried couple to be together in the same hotel room. Neighbors informed on that young woman that she was seen inviting more than one man inside her apartment within one week’s period, four, I believe, which apparently triggers suspicions of lesser morals. Uniformed policemen knock at her door just when the two were about to have dinner and takes them away. The character pushes one of the policeman and runs out of the building to escape into the city. The millions of Beijing are all the same; the cars, the streets; our character has the same name and same occupation as many others in the phone book, so the producer remarks that even for the police would be very difficult to find anyone here. A lot of sameness! But just to hide from the police is not what our character wants. He seeks hope. The need to seek hope even if one did not learn how to articulate it as such, it is what this film is about. Just like the fish is always silent not by choice: A dream like image becomes embodied by “Mohe”, the far away village, so far that “even our great Communist nation” has not been able to bring electricity, TV and other ‘conquests of progress’ to. The image Mohe becomes romanticized by its sheer distance from the bulk of the country, which in itself may be enough to diminish the grip of society’s control. Then there is the lack of factual information (so common in the Communist world) and by its reclusive location, hopefully far away from the sameness, also. Travelers who are asked, they all have their own image of Mohe. But there is at least one traveler who asks if they have an official permission to film and firmly dictates that they are not permitted to film in the train. Just before the train reached its terminus, a woman’s voice coming out of the train’s speakers in a form of a pre-recorded advertisement, spoke of a “truly Northern Paradise”; There, they say, one can see the Northern Lights (another symbol of the exotic) that another traveler on the train did not even know what they were, confusing them with a Sun eclipse.
    Yet, the last part of the pilgrimage to Mohe must be taken on foot across the frozen vastness; But Mohe proves to be nothing more than what our character was running from: “No restaurants, no movie theaters, just one store…” One stated irony: they did have a small power generator building in the village, running noisy and unattended, so at least one myth proved to be false.
    Here, the fish comes from under the ice. Some attend a local Christian church. That is of some variety, of course, however boring it appears to be, but the man eating the fish at the end, is not allowed go to, because he is a Communist. His wife cleans the fish and serves it whole in a bowl (which looks purely disgusting). He speaks only to ask for the fish’s head, the last part of the fish left (there’s a symbol in that, too) and keeps eating it in silence for the longest time until the lights go out, cut off from the generator, tonight perhaps a little earlier than expected. The man tends the fire in the stove to make it burn through the night.
    Next morning, our main character lies dead in the snow (not unlike the fish being harvested every day) and the producer wanders by guessing that he may have died trying to cross the border into Russia. As the film goes, we notice that the difference between the writer/ producer and the main character, becomes of lesser importance until they become one, just as he discovers in the end that perhaps his character was invented to help the producer experience what he did not dare to experience on his own.
    Of the many attempts by talented writers to bring a taste of reality out from the inside Communism to an unprejudiced western observer, this one is one of the very best. Take it from a hungry fellow who lived and ate the fish one half of a lifetime in that world portrayed, a world that might as well be on another planet and the other half here, in America!
    VF

  • Viorel Florea

    A Comment from A Fellow Escapee

    Criticism of the royalty was not permitted during the middle-ages France, and that’s how the literary form of Fable came about. In it animals take the place of and symbolize humans to indirectly criticize them; so this film is a modern days’ fable of life in China, where the direct criticism of the Communist ideology and leadership is not permitted.
    I lived half of my life in Communism, although in Romania, not in China, before escaping to freedom, but I cannot begin to tell you how close to home this movie hit me! Just as its structure is designed to be, this film should be seen and understood on many different levels.
    This documentary bears the value of a message smuggled out from inside a jail that happens to be of the size of a country. It takes not just a masterful writer to depict the life inside tyranny, but he must do so in a “code” meant to make it pass by the customary Communist censorship on its way IN AND/OR OUT of jail: OUT to let the story be known to the world and IN to let the hungry have a taste that there is much more to the world outside than a sad daily diet of fish! But at the same time, the message, which must avoid censor, must make it in a vividly obvious form to the attention of an unprejudiced reader. How does one accomplish this? Perhaps it is not fully possible for the whole message to make it out and be “de-codified” in its entirety by men who have never lived in oppression: Free men can hardly imagine the utter loneliness and spiritual void of living in a limited world of Communist totality. It is like living inside an ideological laboratory experimenting of unwilling humans, to try devoid them of hope and of the normal desires for the endless variety of colors, sounds and events in a free society. Like in the film, nothing is permitted without control, not even dating more than one person at a time, which if observed by neighbors, it can trigger the arrest of our young culpable woman by the people’s militia. Our character thankfully escapes by dissipating himself into the limitless yet un-descript universe of Beijing. Seeking individuality, no matter how small, the writer goes shopping for a winter hat and is trying one on while the store assistant comments that it makes him look very much like a well know Communist hero… “very becoming!” A jail is a jail no matter its size! A big one is just that: more of the same no matter how far you venture within its walls. The fish is the sameness, the lack of variety, of options and of choices. It is what the daily life in China feels like to an intellectually hungry young man, looking for more, for answers beyond the strict social fence. There is no mention of the word “freedom” of any kind (which must be understood that it would have never made it pass censorship), yet to a prejudiced observer as I, one can almost feel its energy building itself up; or perhaps it is only the observer’s optimism who wants it that way!
    Interestingly, the fish is always dead or dieing; the fish is definitely not happy! The very symbol of exhausting resources.
    The sameness is even bigger than that big country, for it reaches beyond the very strict limits of borders (it must be noted that in Communism, frontier lines are tantamount to ends of earth, not to be crossed or even approached) and it shows that in Russia, too, it appears to be more about the same fish (to me, a vivid extrapolation of life lived under the same conditions; Russian and Chinese fishermen talking across the border about the only thing they have in common with one another;
    But, it was that young couple out for a walk in the bitter cold in Beijing, hands in their pockets, empty streets, countless uninviting benches, patches of snow swept by wind, not a soul in sight and nowhere else to go, that reminded me of what my life as a young student has been in Bucharest in the 70’s, where it was, too, illegal for an unmarried couple to be together in the same hotel room. Neighbors informed on that young woman that she was seen inviting more than one man inside her apartment within one week’s period, four, I believe, which apparently triggers suspicions of lesser morals. Uniformed policemen knock at her door just when the two were about to have dinner and takes them away. The character pushes one of the policeman and runs out of the building to escape into the city. The millions of Beijing are all the same; the cars, the streets; our character has the same name and same occupation as many others in the phone book, so the producer remarks that even for the police would be very difficult to find anyone here. A lot of sameness! But just to hide from the police is not what our character wants. He seeks hope. The need to seek hope even if one did not learn how to articulate it as such, it is what this film is about. Just like the fish is always silent not by choice: A dream like image becomes embodied by “Mohe”, the far away village, so far that “even our great Communist nation” has not been able to bring electricity, TV and other ‘conquests of progress’ to. The image Mohe becomes romanticized by its sheer distance from the bulk of the country, which in itself may be enough to diminish the grip of society’s control. Then there is the lack of factual information (so common in the Communist world) and by its reclusive location, hopefully far away from the sameness, also. Travelers who are asked, they all have their own image of Mohe. But there is at least one traveler who asks if they have an official permission to film and firmly dictates that they are not permitted to film in the train. Just before the train reached its terminus, a woman’s voice coming out of the train’s speakers in a form of a pre-recorded advertisement, spoke of a “truly Northern Paradise”; There, they say, one can see the Northern Lights (another symbol of the exotic) that another traveler on the train did not even know what they were, confusing them with a Sun eclipse.
    Yet, the last part of the pilgrimage to Mohe must be taken on foot across the frozen vastness; But Mohe proves to be nothing more than what our character was running from: “No restaurants, no movie theaters, just one store…” One stated irony: they did have a small power generator building in the village, running noisy and unattended, so at least one myth proved to be false.
    Here, the fish comes from under the ice. Some attend a local Christian church. That is of some variety, of course, however boring it appears to be, but the man eating the fish at the end, is not allowed go to, because he is a Communist. His wife cleans the fish and serves it whole in a bowl (which looks purely disgusting). He speaks only to ask for the fish’s head, the last part of the fish left (there’s a symbol in that, too) and keeps eating it in silence for the longest time until the lights go out, cut off from the generator, tonight perhaps a little earlier than expected. The man tends the fire in the stove to make it burn through the night.
    Next morning, our main character lies dead in the snow (not unlike the fish being harvested every day) and the producer wanders by guessing that he may have died trying to cross the border into Russia. As the film goes, we notice that the difference between the writer/ producer and the main character, becomes of lesser importance until they become one, just as he discovers in the end that perhaps his character was invented to help the producer experience what he did not dare to experience on his own.
    Of the many attempts by talented writers to bring a taste of reality out from the inside Communism to an unprejudiced western observer, this one is one of the very best. Take it from a hungry fellow who lived and ate the fish one half of a lifetime in that world portrayed, a world that might as well be on another planet and the other half here, in America!
    VF

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