In his first feature after a battery of well-received shorts, scribe-helmer Matthias Keilich looks at Koreans living in Germany in “Neither Fish nor Fowl.” Pic traces the personal journey of a 19-year-old Korean-born, German-raised orphan named Michael (Ill-Young Kim) who finds love in Berlin. A far cry from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s blistering film on racial prejudice in Germany, “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” pic shows Berliner Koreans as socially accepted and well-off, but with youth growing up torn between two different cultures. Already at Rotterdam and L.A. fests, with Pusan to come, “Fish” will get comers in only limited art markets in parts of Europe and East Asia.
Keilich shows courage by introducing Michael treating his adoptive parents, Renate (Lisa Kreuzer) and Fred (Christian Steyer), with the kind of cold disregard children more frequently harbor toward their birth parents. Out of high school, drumming with a washed-up band and bored in southern Germany’s Black Forest area where few Koreans live, Michael packs up and drives to Berlin to shack up with a pal.
He immediately notices the presence of Koreans in the city, and spots pretty Jin Hi (Ju Youn Kim) working in her parents’ take-out restaurant. She appears to have her life on track — studying, working and teaching tae kwon do. Michael, on the other hand, is pure slackerdom, paying for groceries by selling off his large vinyl record collection.
Jin Hi is bilingual, while Michael doesn’t speak Korean, putting him outside the Korea-centric tae kwon do club circle he’s trying to join. Jin Hi’s initial reluctance to give in to Michael’s constant wooing feels like a smart young woman’s reluctance to hook up with a guy who seems too desperate. Thus, when love does bloom, it has evolved naturally out of a gentle struggle between hearts and wills.
The intelligence of the first half gives way to much more obvious forms of melodrama in latter half, when the two sets of parents begin intervening, and Michael is given his adoption papers by Fred. Jin Hi reads, in the documents’ Korean text, that Michael’s birth parents abandoned him as a baby, but she can’t bring herself to tell him until the dramatic 11th hour.
When Jin Hi’s parents move back to Seoul and take her with them, Michael wings there to reunite with Jin Hi, regardless of what her parents think of him.
While much of the latter-going isn’t entirely convincing, Keilich and lenser Henning Stirner keep aud involved with a camera roaming close around the characters with an immediacy that commands attention. Helmer similarly coaxes engaging perfs from his two lead Korean-Teutons, with the male Kim gaining charm after at first coming off like a jerk. Kreuzer, though visibly older and having been away from international cinema view for some time, still has that warm, toss-away manner that distinguished her in work like “Kings of the Road.”
Super 16-to-35 blowup is tops, with sizzling colors made possible by reverse Kodak stock being cross-processed. Theo Kreiger’s string quartet music isn’t the obvious choice for material, and the better for it.