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.