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Tropical Fish

Taiwanese TV director Chen Yu-Hsun makes a satisfying transition to features with "Tropical Fish," a disarming comic fairy tale about early-adolescent unease , first love and the obsessive push to make the grade. Bulging with appealingly oddball characters, amusing visual quirks and vibrant color, the film stays just the right side of cutesiness. It should sit pretty in the festival aquarium and might make a splash or two in territories open to upbeat Asian fare.

Taiwanese TV director Chen Yu-Hsun makes a satisfying transition to features with “Tropical Fish,” a disarming comic fairy tale about early-adolescent unease , first love and the obsessive push to make the grade. Bulging with appealingly oddball characters, amusing visual quirks and vibrant color, the film stays just the right side of cutesiness. It should sit pretty in the festival aquarium and might make a splash or two in territories open to upbeat Asian fare.

For Taiwanese schoolchildren, life-or-death importance is attached to the Joint Entrance Exam, which admits students first to high school and then to university. Being an unscholarly, unambitious type, junior high student Zhi-Qiang silently endures the beating he gets from his teacher and the haranguing of his parents, preferring to hang out in the videogame arcade or daydream about a girl he’s too shy to approach.

When a local tyke is kidnapped, Zhi-Qiang stumbles onto the culprit and gets abducted himself. During the ransom pickup, the ruthless ex-cop behind the operation is killed in a motorcycle accident, leaving the two kids with his good-hearted but clueless sidekick, Ah Ching.

Concerned mainly with their appetites and with missing their favorite cartoons, the kids are unafraid. When Ah Ching transports them out of Taipei to the flood-afflicted coastal fishing village where his eccentric menagerie of relatives lives, literally up to their knees in water, the boys become assimilated into the bizarre family unit.

A well-developed running gag tracks national media attention that focuses less on the kidnapping ordeal than on Zhi-Qiang’s impending absence during the crucial exam. While cops close in, and headline news bulletins keep tabs on the case, Ah Ching and kin make increasingly inept attempts to bag the ransom, at the same time providing Zhi-Qiang with schoolbooks and spurring him on in his study program.

Characters are drawn with real generosity, making likable comic figures even of Ah Ching’s money-grabbing aunt and Zhi-Qiang’s scornful, cane-happy teacher who proclaims the lazy kid a model student for the evening news.

Though the story plays basically like kidpic material, it has more than enough freshness and charm to win over adults. The sunny visuals and fantasy sequences are bright and imaginative, especially Zhi-Qiang’s underwater dreamland, where his passion for tropical fish and his oblivious sweetheart co-exist. Director Chen also plays guitar on the appropriately jaunty soundtrack.

Tropical Fish

(TAIWANESE)

  • Production: A Central Motion Picture Corp./Rice Film Intl. presentation. (International sales: CMPC, Taipei.) Produced by Hsu Li-Kong, Wang Shau-Di. Executive producers , Jiang Feng-Chyi, Huang Li-Ming. Directed, written by Chen Yu-Hsun.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Liao Pen-Jung; editors, Chen Sheng-Chan, Lei Cheng-Chin; music, Yu Kuang-Yen; art direction, Chang Tai; sound, Yang Ching-An. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 11, 1995. Running time: 106 MIN.
  • With: With: Wen Yin, Lien Pi-Tong, Lin Chen-Sheng, Shi Ching-Luen, Lin Chia-Hong.