“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