Fish and Elephant
director & writer: Li Yu
cinematography: Fei Xiaoping
editor: Jiang Jianwei
design: Wang Nan
music: He Wei
producers: Lao Ge, Cheng Yong, Li Yu
production co.: Cheng Yong Productions
Pan Yi ... Xiaoqun
Shitou ... Xiaoling
Zhang Qianqian ... Juanjuan
Zhang Jilian ... Xiaoqun's mother
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the Inside Out Toronto Lesbian & Gay Film & Video Festival, May 23, 2002.
It's always interesting to welcome a "first" in Chinese cinema, and Fish and Elephant 's publicity material trumpets it as the first lesbian-themed mainland film. Novice director Li Yu has delivered an engaging film that successfully takes up the challenge, in a thoughtful, often humorous way, even if it doesn't transcend its trail-blazing agenda.
Li Yu is a twenty nine year old filmmaker who was famous as a TV host in China, before making her first film, the independent documentary Sisters, in 1999. Fish and Elephant is her first feature film. It is an "underground" film, which is to say neither its script nor its print was submitted to the Film Bureau for approval. Which is not surprising, given its subject matter. Filmed on 16mm, and cast entirely with non-professional actors, it managed, like most recent independent and unauthorized mainland films, to stay "under the radar" during shooting. An unfortunate mishap caused the print to temporarily disappear (it was dispatched from the Venice Film Festival to the very officials at home who would not have been thrilled with its unauthorized appearance in Italy), so the 2001 Vancouver Film Festival audience could only watch a videotape. By May 2002, though, a print seems to have found its way back into circulation, and it was shown at the Inside Out Toronto Lesbian & Gay Film & Video Festival.
Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are two single Beijing women: Xiaoqun, approaching thirty, is the elephant keeper at the Beijing Zoo, and keeps a tank of fish in her small apartment (hence the two animals in the title). Her mother is constantly trying to set her up with a string of more or less eligible men: the resulting parade of desultory "dates" makes for some of the film's funniest moments. Not just funny: some of these men were actually recruited by fake personal ads placed by the director. Their partially improvised conversations with Xiaoqun take unexpected turns when she chooses to reveal to them that she doesn't like men. And their reactions, which seem completely unrehearsed, are both funny and telling: they just don't get it, and seem consistently to struggle against accepting the meaning that Xiaoqun's words clearly contain. Xiaoling sells clothing she makes from a stall in an indoor market, or rather sits listlessly ignoring customers, fixing her nails, in between avoiding her ex boyfriend. We see the two women meet, Xiaoqun takes the initiative, and soon they are sharing Xiaoqun's apartment and bed.
Li Yu's style can be a bit rough and ready: some scenes are carefully composed, and use the almost square 16 mm format effectively. In these, Li favours long takes and an economically motionless camera. Other scenes, though, seem a bit awkwardly framed and imprecisely cut, as if the director hadn't completely worked out her visual design. But there are advantages to this shoot-as-you-go style, too, not the least of which is a real sense of documentary realism, of a straightforward, unmanipulated honesty that serves its subject particularly well. In fact, the film does contain more than a seed of documentary. Li Yu explained that she found it difficult to find professional actresses for the two leads, given the lingering sense of taboo that still extends to portrayals of lesbians in mainland Chinese cinema. She eventually found Pan Yi and Shitou (who play respectively Xiaoqun and Xiaoling) in a Beijing club frequented by lesbians. Though neither had acting experience, the director inspired performances from them that were both completely engaging and frankly courageous.
Does the "first lesbian mainland Chinese film" necessarily constitute the beginning of a genre, or a movement? Fish and Elephant does not seem interested in assuming these sorts of burdens: it opens a door, treats its subject with sensitivity, a graceful, intimate, good humoured honesty, and a lack of pretension. Its flaws are those, entirely forgivable, of a first film, of a novice director who really wants to try to cram all of her ideas into one work. A last act swing towards melodramatic gunplay is jarring in tone, and Li Yu just can't quite pull it off, within the clearly marked constraints of the domestic dramatic comedy that she's established. Fortunately, after this excursion, the film smartly rights itself with a wonderfully ambivalent coda, offering what looks like comedy's traditional closure, while hesitating to tie up every loose end. A final scene replays a visual trope that's been threaded throughout the film: the camera looks at the action from a position at a slight distance, on the outside, through a screen. Perhaps this is Li Yu's way of representing her own, and much of the audience's position with respect to the film's subject. It's a perfectly poised distance that she establishes, one that ironizes without alienating, observes without fetishizing.
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