The folk tale upon which the story of “Cinderella” is based originated during China’s Tang Dynasty, some 800 years before the European version written by Charles Perrault. It has hundreds of variants and versions, though I doubt many before “Year of the Fish” included a fairy godmother who ran a brutal sweatshop and threatened to bite the heroine’s tits off.
Writer/director David Kaplan has taken this centuries-old fairy tale and plopped it down in New York’s Chinatown. Youn Ye Xian (An Nguyen) has just arrived from China to work in the beauty salon of her father’s cousing, Mrs. Su (Tsai Chin), Ye Xian’s father is very ill, we’re told, and she hopes to make enough money to send back to help him pay for his care.
She soon discovers that Mrs. Su’s “beauty salon” is in fact a massage parlor catering to the “with release” crowd. Unwilling to perform the necessary tasks for the job, she is relegated to doing everything else, including the laundry, cleaning, shopping, and cooking. Mocked and abused by Mrs. Su and her creepy brother Vinne (Lee Wong), as well as the parlor’s working girls, her only sources of comfort are fleeting encounters with jazz accordianist Johnny (“X-Men 3’s” Ken Leung) and the rapidly growing goldfish given to her by myserious, blind fortune teller Auntie Yaga.
Kaplan shot “Year of the Fish” on handheld miniDV cameras (the better to obtain shots in the cramped confines of Chinatown) and rotoscoped the film using digital painting software that incorporated color palettes from artists like Brueghel and Cezanne. The result is a more unreal look and feel which enhances the more fantastic elements of the story (an accordian player can actually get the girl?).
A blend of classical fairy tale and conventional, modern rom-com, “Year of the Fish” is a sweetly engaging effort that manages a fair amount of charm and innocence in spite of the rather seedy surroundings.