Taxicabs may not turn into a pumpkins, and the fairy godmother may sport fins and a tail, but “Year of the Fish” is a Cinderella story all the way, from its abused heroine to its happy ending. That the film is rotoscoped, or digitally painted, is its arthouse/festival calling card. But the story is so cliched and broadly drawn that few paying auds will feel compelled to call.
Based on an earlier Chinese version of the fairy tale, rather than the better-known European tale, “Year of the Fish” features the predictably beleaguered heroine, the sweet-natured Ye Xian (An Nguyen), sent to New York by her ailing father to work at the Chinatown massage parlor owned by the nefarious Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin). When it’s clear Ye Xian is unable to accept a life of prostitution, she is forced by the cruel and angry Mrs. Su to scrub floors, cook meals and live a life of involuntary servitude.
That the film is animated gives it an appropriately magical feel, but it can’t save the story from being drowned in devices and stereotype. Chin, although a terrific actress, is bound by the dragon-lady conventions of her character; Nguyen’s Ye Xian is little more than a doe-eyed victim, waiting for Prince Charming — who comes in the form of the handsome Johnny Pan (Ken Leung), a local accordionist who’s been having problems with modern Chinese women, but who will apparently live happily ever with someone as pliable as Ye Xian.
One day on the street, a mysterious, hunchbacked blind woman called Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim) gives Ye Xian a goldfish, which she loves, but which begins to rapidly outgrow its bowl. The enchanted fish provides some commentary on the action (we’re the only one to hear it) and becomes our entre into the world ofmagical realism that roams Mott Street, where hallucinations are as plentiful as dim sum.
The production values of “Year of the Fish” are moot, because rotoscoping is, by definition, an exaggerated, even crude, colorization of live-action. Kaplan’s direction is overly sentimental, and the soundtrack suggests Douglas Sirk-era melodrama as well as silent-movie piano.