Inspired by a news item about a provincial restaurant that served human flesh, “Fish & Cat” initially looks as if it might be the first Iranian slasher movie, but all is not as it seems. Filmed in one long, bravura shot by lenser Mahmud Kalari (“A Separation”), helmer-scribe Shahram Mokri’s highly original second feature combines formal experimentation with a sly sense of humor and a surprising feeling for American genre conventions. The idiosyncratic pic nabbed a special prize for innovation from the Venice fest Horizons jury and firmly establishes Mokri’s rep as a distinctive talent. Cult outlets should take note.
All mise-en-scene and no montage? No problem. The pic manages to be both narrative and nonlinear as the camera’s complex choreography creates fissures in time, piling on stories within stories that trap viewers in an increasingly ominous, often repetitive nightmare.
The circular action begins at a ramshackle restaurant apparently run by the strange and sinister cooks Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar), and then cycles to a nearby forest and lake, where a group of students, who have come to participate in a kite flying competition, pitch their tents. Mokri immediately establishes an eerie yet blackly comic atmosphere that recalls the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and other similar genre titles as a lost city slicker tries to get directions from Babak.
Eventually, Babak and Saeed meander into the forest carrying sharp knives and a rancid-smelling plastic bag that oozes blood. Their peculiar conversation concerns characters that make a memorable appearance toward the end of the film, namely their colleague Hamid (Khosrow Shahrad) and his identically dressed, one-armed twins (Pouya Shahrabi, Nima Shahrabi).
To adhere to the strictures of the single shot, new characters enter and exit the frame, and the sinuously gliding camera may (or may not) choose to follow them. Thus we meet the distinctively coiffed Kambiz (Faraz Modiri) as well as his obsessive father (Siavash Cheraghipoor), who may (or may not) fall victim to Babak and Saeed.
Although Mokri employs some horror conventions (particularly sound effects) in order to build a mood of dread, he refrains from showing graphic violence. Instead, dreadful deeds and creepy sights are described in an odd variety of contexts, leaving audiences to imagine the worst. The episode that generates the most tension occurs when Babak bullies the pretty Mina (Neda Jebraeeli) into following him into the forest, on the pretext of needing her help to fix a valve that will prevent the flooding of their campsite. Some audience members may be tempted to yell “Don’t do it!” at the screen.
Meanwhile, down by the lake, handsome Parviz (Abed Abest) is sporting an unexplained bloody wound on his forehead and juggling the attention of several young women, some of whom seem to be current and past loves. As he wanders around the campsite registering the competitors and their kites, his gear mysteriously goes missing.
Throughout the film, Mokri plays with various forms of narration. Sometimes, for no particular reason, we gain access to the thoughts of different characters, yet these thoughts are rarely pertinent to the situation at hand. Instead, they further serve the helmer’s intent of bending time and often add a dose of humor.
Despite being overlong and a tad too talky, “Fish & Cat” is perversely compelling. Like Mokri’s debut feature, “Ashkan, the Charmed Ring and Other Stories,” it experiments with nonlinear narrative, thriller elements and point of view, here pushing them to the nth degree.
To achieve the smooth choreography of his single shot, Mokri and outstanding lenser Kalari rehearsed with the thesps (most of whom hail from the theater) for an entire month. Kalari filmed with a Sony Nex-VG20, creating a slightly sepia tone in which the bloody reds really pop. The unsettling score by Christophe Rezai is suitably dirgelike and occasionally reminiscent of the music of Michael Nyman.