For his debut feature, writer/director David Kaplan created a hefty stack of obstacles for himself. One: he chose to update one of the most familiar and oft-told fairytales in the canon (in fact, he went back to 9th Century China for the oldest version known). Two: he shot his work of magical fantasy on the unmagically realistic medium of digital video. Three: he manipulated his footage by rotoscoping it, turning his low-budget DV drama into a full-blown animated feature. It takes a special individual to not let these ingredients become an overcooked, inedible concoction, but somehow, Kaplan pulls it off. Year of the Fish is that rare low-budget film that casts a genuinely magical spell.
Let’s get this out of the way, for it is almost certain that some viewers who watch Year of the Fish will call “stereotype!” on some of the characterizations. But one needs to remember: we are watching a fairytale here. Revisit any version of Cinderella and the wicked stepmother and stepsisters are, in any incarnation, defiantly harsh, to the point of caricature. Kaplan only embraces this formula for the evil nemeses (namely, Tsai Chin’s wicked madam Mrs. Su and Hettiene Park’s evil coworker Hong Ji), in order to further align viewers with the plight of Ye Xian (An Nguyen). He also does this with the film’s more imaginative characters, such as the mysterious, hunchbacked Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim), but this is done to further establish an air of heightened reality. Truth be told, if Kaplan hadn’t animated his footage and had simply presented these performances in naked, flat digital imagery, they might be treading Lady in the Water territory (“Ohhh, Missah Heep, you nah know wuh Narf eez?!”), but unlike M. Night Shyamalan, Kaplan takes the necessary steps to create a convincingly fantastical—not laughably farcical—world.
To shatter all criticisms in that regard, Kaplan creates a variation on the handsome prince character that isn’t just incredibly invigorating; it further grounds the story and adds a sense of realism that makes Kaplan’s balancing act all the more impressive. This time around, the handsome prince isn’t a prince at all. He’s Johnny Pan (the always compelling Ken Leung), a struggling musician who might be Asian, but the way that he acts, you wouldn’t know it. He plays the accordion and, though he lives in Chinatown, he seems like another aimless American twenty-something. This makes his discovery of Ye Xian all the more enchanting, and, thanks to the heartfelt performances of Nguyen and especially Leung, it makes us root for them even harder.
As for the animation itself, while Kaplan admits to having rotoscoped his DV footage to spice up what would otherwise be a flat visual presentation, it also makes conveniently perfect thematic sense. This modern variation on the Cinderella story is a daringly graphic and mature one—it takes place in a smutty massage parlor, after all. In that context, we need a constant reminder that this is a fairytale and not a gritty low-budget drama. In a more immediate sense, however, the animation puts us in the mind of Ye Xian, who is arriving in New York City for the very first time. The mere visceral shock of her arrival is enough to make her see the world through such wildly visual eyes, not to mention the consideration that her conception of America has probably been shaped by a lifetime of fantasizing about this special place.
Kaplan makes another wise decision by not over-rotoscoping his imagery. At times, certain shots feel only slightly manipulated, to keep the story grounded. It is this decision, and so many more, that make Year of the Fish such a refreshing low-budget gem. Not only does Kaplan’s film feel like you’re watching two diametrically opposed films at the exact same time: a realistic, low-budget DV drama and an animated magical adventure. It feels like you’re watching a familiar one in a way that you’ve never seen it before.
— Michael Tully