You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

San Sebastian Film Review: ‘A Fish Out of Water’

A young boy's inexplicable memories of a past family bring his present one into focus in Lai Kuo-An's enigmatic but warm-hearted debut.

Lai Kuo-An
Runyin Bai, Jen Shuo Cheng, Peggy Tseng

1 hour 30 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7297958

It’s one thing for your Uncle Boonmee to recall his past lives; when your kindergarten-age child starts doing it, however, it’s cause for active concern. Yet a serene, zen-like aversion to explanation is ultimately the making of “A Fish Out of Water,” a beguiling domestic fable in which real-world family strife is further complicated — but potentially healed — by the suggestion of a more tranquil parallel universe, as the young son of a separating couple embarks on a stubbornly enigmatic quest to locate his “past parents.” A loosely woven brain-teaser with a creepingly intense emotional undertow, this marks a confident, collected first foray into features directing for Taiwanese commercials veteran Lai Kuo-An.

Having premiered in Toronto’s Discovery program before landing a slot in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition, Lai’s elegantly teasing debut can expect to place in various other international showcases for fresh talent in the months to come. Modest international distribution could follow, on the strength of its intriguing premise and light-touch execution, but this is likely to remain a bigger “Fish” in the festival pond than in the arthouse ocean.

Opening somewhere towards the end of the narrative’s second act before looping back to the beginning, “A Fish Out of Water” justifies that recently fashionable structural ploy more than most: In a film where one character apparently has a different perception of space and time to the others, that introductory flash-forward gives them a kind of common temporal destination. Lai’s screenplay is in no great hurry to specify the condition that ails pre-schooler Yi-An (Run-yin Bai) and, by extension, his parents Haoteng (Jen Shuo Cheng) and Yaji (Peggy Tseng), though it appears all involved are at the end of their separate tethers. “I don’t want to see him disappointed every day,” Yaji sighs, a conclusion that spurs the family far from their Taiwan home to the prettily water-faded, wind-tousled Japanese fishing town of Toyama.

Answers, to a point, come when we rewind a year and observe the family’s gradually disrupted daily routine. Yaji and Haoteng are coming sadly but civilly apart, their relationship untenably burdened by the responsibility of caring for Haoteng’s severely incapacitated father (Akio Chen); finally, Yaji takes Yi-An and moves in with her sister. It’s to be expected that such upheaval would have an adverse psychological effect on a young child, though Yi-An’s symptoms of damage are somewhat unusual. When asked to draw a family picture by his teacher, the resulting, cloud-swirled portrait leaves out dad and adds a sister he doesn’t have — “I had one before,” is his curt explanation. He had other parents too, he says, and an idyllic house by the sea in distant Toyama: memories that are too vivid and strangely specific to be dismissed, yet don’t square with any aspect of his upbringing.

Lai has little interest in playing psychologist to his characters, giving the most confounding aspects of Yi-An’s thought process plenty of breathing room as viewers are invited to draw their own conclusions — or, as his parents increasingly decide, to hover between possibilities. These could be false memories, implanted by psychosis, or wishful projections induced by the trauma of his parents’ separation. Perhaps something delicately spiritual or supernatural is at play, with Yi-An unpeeling past incarnations or undergoing some manner of peaceful possession. Either way, the root of the boy’s alternative past proves less important than the impact — first alienating, then oddly unifying — it has on his family in their troubled present.

Lai, who has collaborated with Taiwanese titans Hou Hsiao-hsien and Chen Kuo-fu on non-feature projects, brings some of their airy, poetic humanism to proceedings. Even at its most uncanny, “A Fish Out of Water” is primarily preoccupied with fine-grained domestic details and tensions, observed with bittersweet precision: Such scenes as a doleful make-do attempt at a family birthday party with one parent absent, or a parent-teacher conference in which a Yaji’s most gnawing worries are gently confirmed, would quiver with heartache even in less extraordinary narrative circumstances. Cheng and Tseng, for their part, play even their most tear-stained scenes with restraint; seven-year-old Bai impressively navigates the prickliest aspects of Yi-An’s psychology, maintaining our sympathy without ever resorting to cutesy mugging.

Technical credits are likewise low-key but evocative of deeper feeling beneath the surface. Hsu Chih-chun sharp, fluent lensing is rich in the colors of weather, shifting with the family’s general sense of well-being, and while the wistful piano lines of Ke Jhih-hao’s lovely score threatens sentimentality, a consistent, nervous tremble of metallic percussion keeps it softly at bay.

San Sebastian Film Review: 'A Fish Out of Water'

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors), Sept. 28, 2017. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Discovery.)

Production: (Taiwan) A Swallow Wings production. (International sales: Charades, Paris.) Producers: Gene Yao, Jason Liao. Executive producers: Albert Yao, Hsu Chao-Jen.

CREW: Director, screenplay: Lai Kuo-An. Camera (color): Hsu Chih-Chun. Editors: Lai, Lin Zih-Sian, Gene Yao. Music: Ke Jhih-Hao.

With: Runyin Bai, Jen Shuo Cheng, Peggy Tseng, Han-Yi Yao, Akio Chen.

More Film

  • Alamode Acquires Lone Scherfig’s ‘The Kindness

    Alamode Acquires Lone Scherfig’s Berlin Opener ‘The Kindness of Strangers’

    Munich-based Alamode has taken German and Austrian rights to Lone Scherfig’s “The Kindness of Strangers,” ahead of the picture’s opening-night gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival next month. Alamode acquired the rights from London-based HanWay Films, which is handling worldwide sales. Entertainment One is distributing the film in Canada and SF Studios in Scandinavia. [...]

  • Voltage Pictures to Produce Airborne Thriller

    Voltage Pictures to Produce Airborne Thriller 'Blackwing' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Voltage Pictures will produce and fully finance screenwriter David Loughery’s latest thriller “Blackwing,” Variety has learned exclusively. The company will introduce “Blackwing” to buyers at the upcoming European Film Market at the Berlin Film Festival, which opens Feb. 7. More Reviews Iranian Film Festival New York Review: 'Sheeple' Film Review: ‘Storm Boy’ Nicolas Chartier and [...]

  • ‘Metro Exodus’ Opens Up Post-Apocalyptic Russia

    ‘Metro Exodus’ Author On Film, Possible TV Series, Expansive New Game

    Since the launch of the post-apocalyptic survival first-person shooter “Metro 2033” in 2010, the series has kept its action confined to the tunnels running underneath Russia. “Metro Exodus,” due out next month, takes the gameplay to the surface for the first time, going above ground with sprawling levels against a changing backdrop of weather conditions [...]

  • Berlin Film 'The Ground Beneath My

    Berlin Competition Film 'The Ground Beneath My Feet' Sold to Germany's Salzgeber (EXCLUSIVE)

    Salzgeber has acquired the German rights for Berlin Film Festival competition title “The Ground Beneath My Feet” from sales agent Picture Tree International. Variety has been given exclusive access to the film’s trailer. Salzgeber will release the film, directed by Marie Kreutzer, mid-May. Picture Tree describes the movie as a “contemporary female-led drama touching on [...]

  • Donald Glover'Atlanta' TV show premiere, Arrivals,

    Childish Gambino Surprises Beverly Hills Crowd With Reimagined 'Redbone'

    Donald Glover made an unexpected appearance at Film Independent’s “An Evening With…” series on Tuesday, held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and presented by the HFPA. Joining “Black Panther” composer and Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, who was the subject of a Q&A conducted by “The Treatment” host Elvis Mitchell, [...]


    Film News Roundup: Glenn Close Selected for Oscar Wilde Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Glenn Close gets an honor, AFI names its Directing Workshop for Women participants and Teri Polo gets cast in a Christmas drama. CLOSE HONOR More Reviews Iranian Film Festival New York Review: 'Sheeple' Film Review: ‘Storm Boy’ Glenn Close will be honored on Feb. 21 by the US-Ireland Alliance at [...]

  • Jason Reitman Ghostbusters

    Jason Reitman to Direct Secret 'Ghostbusters' Movie

    Sony Pictures is getting the wheels in motion for the next installment in the “Ghostbusters” franchise, and it knows who it’s going to call to direct: Jason Reitman. Sources tell Variety that Reitman, whose father, Ivan, directed the first two “Ghostbusters” movies, will direct the latest pic in the famous franchise. More Reviews Iranian Film Festival [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content