Contemplating a peasant, his gangster son and a mysterious mute woman, “Fish Eyes,” Chinese helmer Zheng Wei’s debut feature, testifies to the power of composition to enthrall in the virtual absence of plot, dialogue or even music. A sandscape of shifting dunes, a man leaning against a building or rivers of dirt falling from a tractor form equally arresting tableaux; what little action there is occurs offscreen, obliquely reflected in angled surfaces, or in total darkness. Acquired by eclectic distrib Benten/Watchmaker for its first theatrical venture, this strangely moving minimalist study packs a purely arthouse punch.
In the middle of nowhere — or, to be precise, in Inner Mongolia — an old man (Gu Xing-hong) ekes out a subsistence living by farming a sunflower patch and manning a bar across the road for infrequently passing trucks. His son (Shi Pei-liang) comes and goes on a motorcycle, secreting the loot from illegal activities with his gang, briefly glimpsed during the son’s excursions to a nearby town.
At one point, father and son are joined by a wordless young woman (Shen Meng-yao) who appears by the river where the old man fishes. Reduced to simple gestures, performed with still serenity by the father and the woman and with restless impatience by the son, old and new China uneasily coexist.
While Zhang Chi’s recent “The Shaft” revealed a lack of communication between Chinese youth and elders by dividing its family narrative into three overlapping stories, Wei’s interest lies in these generations’ simultaneous presence and almost absurdist juxtaposition. Though subtle signs of latent emotion abound, they find no expression in action or dialogue. Snatches of news broadcasts on a car radio, extolling the numerous Chinese medals won at the ongoing Beijing Olympics, ring as hollow as would Earth’s news on the moon.
Wei subtly employs mirrors, contrasting the immutability of the land (and the peasants who inhabit it) with the constant flux of capitalist expansion. Early in the film, the screen shockingly buckles and wavers — as it turns out, the image of the road was a reflection in a large mirror jostled in transit. Later, that same mirror disorientingly reflects the motorcycle gang encircling a courtyard, then shattering the mirror before roaring off.
Visually sumptuous, HD-shot Chinese-South Korean co-production confounds all technical expectations raised by its next-to-nothing budget.