Blowfish (Hetun)

Taiwan (2011) Dir. Lee Chi-yuarn

Xiao-Zhun (Vicci Pan) works as an elevator attendant at a high class department store in the city. Shy, quiet and obedient through her rigid work routine Xiao-Zhun lives a dull life with her lazy boyfriend (Hong Xiu Wu) who she discovers is cheating on her. Deciding she wants to find a better home for her pet blowfish Xiao-Zhun finds a buyer on the internet and leaves there and then to make the exchange at the location in the countryside. The buyer (Kang Jen Wu), a scruffy taciturn man known as Coach due to his job as a baseball coach, takes Xiao-Zhun to his place where they make love. Xiao-Zhun stays on to live with Coach, adopting the role of his absent wife Flora (Angel Yao) as the pair go on a journey of self and mutual discovery.

Taiwanese director Lee Chi-Yuarn is not the most prolific filmmaker – just five films in thirteen years – but he is noted for being willing to try new things. Thus the most remarkable thing about Blowfish is how it feels less a Taiwanese film and more like a Japanese drama, with its tepid pace, sparse dialogue, wistful musical soundtrack and heavy use of symbolism and ambiguity. So, if you’re expecting the usual fast paced affair with machine gun delivery of the dialogue then a (nice) surprise awaits.

The film’s opening scene suggests a satire as we witness the entire staff of the department store doing their morning workout, in unison on every level of the building. It’s quite an amusing sight to behold. Then the elevator staff recite the rules of their job – when smiling never show your gums and only allow seven teeth to be seen at all times. This makes Xiao-Zhun’s reaction to finding her boyfriend in bed with another woman by smiling nervously like the practical automaton she has become.

The situation gets a little weirder when Xiao-Zhun and Coach summarily bonk in front of the blowfish with barely a word spoken between them. Aside from a fondness for fish they seem to share some serious emotional scars and this unusual union helps erode these and open doors for a brighter future. Left alone as Coach goes about his job, Xiao-Zhun finds a room full of bright clothes hung up around the spare bedroom, which conveniently fit, leading to the first stage of Xiao-Zhun slipping into the role of Flora, the absent wife and assumed cause of Coach’s current funk.

Perhaps not a conventional form of therapy, if you can call it that, but it seems to work wonders for both while raising a number of moral and, if you want to get deeper, existential questions. Does it matter who is the other person in your life as long as they fulfil the roles they are required while keeping up the pretence of being the one you miss? And is it okay to pretend to be someone else if it allows you to get the thrills you are missing from life? And what happens when you fall in love – who are you falling in love with?

Definite answers aren’t forthcoming but since this isn’t your everyday love affair tale that is to be expected. But what Lee does is put us in the position of watching the relationship unfurl and how it brings about positive change for both wounded parties without any apparent collateral damage – until the final act that is, which is the only real true dramatic edge this film possesses. It may seem a little too late but in fact it is the perfect exclamation point to this esoteric tale.

In the meantime we see Xiao-Zhun actually appearing to be having fun for the first time in the film, which is open to interpretation that she is either letting herself go from the usual regimented lifestyle of her day job, or she finds Flora’s life more exciting as her own, thus this “role play” is a form of escape. An assisting factor to this more active life is blind neighbour Goldy (Yi Ching Lu) who mistakes Xiao-Zhun for Flora, who was teaching Goldy to tap dance.

A man of almost no words, Coach seems to accept this arrangement without complaint, joining in by selecting certain clothes for Xiao-Zhun to wear before some snuggling. Again, it is up to us to divine if this is someone who is happy to have a substitute bed companion or if being able to carry on is opening him up to the idea of loving again and move on; with Xiao-Zhun pretending to be Flora it seems to be a bit from column A and bit from column B.

It’s a relatively small cast but the film really belongs to neophyte actress and Lee’s co-writer Vicci Pan. Similar to Tang Wei, but not as controversial, Pan makes a bold debut, baring all (literally) and engaging in some sexual (but not too graphic) scenes while displaying a raw yet incisive understanding of how to create an emotionally realistic character. Xiao-Zhun’s actions may not seem rationale or normal to us but Pan makes her feel real and understandable. She may not be traditionally glamorous but she is quite photogenic and has a quite presence about her.

Admittedly it takes while for the audience to get into the groove Lee has created the rewards do eventually reveal themselves. Along with Pan’s performance, the gorgeous photography stands out right from the aforementioned exercise scene to the scenes of the titular blowfish being purchased. The countryside is beautifully shot and there is something artistic in the way Flora’s vibrant clothes are arranged around the room.

This may sound odd but Blowfish reads to be a lot more than it actually is while delivering more than it should. This may be down to the silent and minimalist approach but this deceptive little film offers unique look into this funny old thing called love with a wonderful performance from promising newcomer Pan.