2018 has been a year full of surprises for Chinese cinema, in particular thanks to the rip-roaring success of small-budget films that, although tales of drama, are very enjoyable, if not exactly classifiable as black comedies. Films directed by young filmmakers telling stories that, despite being specifically Chinese in flavour, deal with ethical problems shared by all modern-day societies, so they cannot be accused of being a genre criticising the Chinese political system. Among these films, the most talked about was Dying to Survive, about the smuggling of cheap medicines – based on a real-life news item – while A Cool Fish is about a group of people who live on the margins of society and whose lives intersect due to a series of coincidences that initially seem improbable, but then go on to become comic and almost absurd, as if destiny is intervening in their lives.
The story takes place in Qiaocheng, a town in Guizhou – the birthplace of Rao Xiaozhi, who directed the film – and the main character is Ma Xianyong, an ex-cop whose stripes were taken away for having caused a car accident while drunk. He then became a bodyguard for a real-estate magnate but desperately wants to join the police force again. He is trying to track down a rifle that was stolen from him. His daughter Ma Yiyi is a student who hates him; his sister Ma Jiaqi was paralysed in the accident caused by her brother and has lost the will to live; Cobra and Big Head are two young reckless friends who hail from the provinces – they rob a telephone store brandishing Ma Xiayong’s rifle, and then discover that it was an exercise in futility because stolen mobile phones cannot be resold on the black market; Gao Ming, the magnate Ma Xiaoyong works for, is on the run with the money siphoned off from a project, but he has a lover who encourages him to turn himself in; his son Gao Xiang wants to redeem his father’s honour; Zhenzhen, a young romantic masseuse, Big Head’s girlfriend, rounds off the list of characters.
The story begins with the theft of the mobile phones and the intrusion of the two thieves into Ma Jiaqi’s apartment – she is not intimidated at all by their threats, indeed, she provokes them in the hope they will kill her and put an end to this sufferance she calls life. The plotline seems contorted, but it revolves around a very simple concept: a robbery that has gone wrong puts people who have very different priorities, desires and sensitivities in contact with each other, underling the difficulties they have in communicating, until the intensity of the situation forces them to overcome their prejudices and examine themselves, and others, from a different viewpoint. Halfway through the story, the film goes from comedy to seamless drama, almost imperceptibly, reaching particularly touching heights, helped by impeccable acting, in particular by Ren Suxi in the difficult role of a woman who is physically weak, but who possesses great inner strength.
Director Rao Xiaozhi began his career in the theatre and wrote this screenplay with playwright Li Zhilong, who he also collaborated with on his previous film The Insanity, a surreal black comedy. The ensemble cast all hail from the stage, and have managed to create the kind of alchemy you usually only encounter in the theatre, infusing a sense of reality – also helped by the use of the Guizhou dialect – into characters that are beyond expectations. A Cool Fish’s message can be distilled into one sentence that Big Head says about his beloved Zhenzhen: “I don’t care what she was before, I care about who she will be.” A transformation is within each and every one of us, destiny is in our hands.