So many people, myself included, just can’t resist a modern retelling of a fairy tale. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe they feed our inner children. Maybe it’s because we, like the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, realize that “happily ever after” can’t be the whole story. Or maybe it’s because at some point in some conversation someone inevitably brings up that Grimm’s fairy tales weren’t even meant for children at all, and we start wondering about the scandalous content of the originals. In any case, when I saw Year of the Fish advertised at Portland’s Hollywood Theater, I knew I had to check it out. Sitting in a near-empty theater, happily drinking my cup of lemon ginger tea, I found myself thoroughly engaged, caught-up in the dangerous, quasi-magical New York of the story. And yet, rapt as I was, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie had outgrown its source material. “Year of the Fish” is full of tantalizing complexity that it often leaves unexplored; it offers you breadcrumbs of possibility but then reverts back to being a fairy tale.
Taking the Chinese legend of Ye Xian (known as the Chinese Cinderella) and setting it in New York’s China Town, writer and director David Kaplan combines on-site shooting, high-tech animation techniques, and a talented cast to create a kind of magically realistic modern fairy tale. Trying to adapt New York City to anything magical always stands in great danger of falling into the cliché on the one hand, or implausible on the other. Too many people have waxed poetic far too many times about its combined beauty and danger; others see it as a place that is almost too full of real life. Impressively, Kaplan manages to balance these two sides of New York so that neither feels out of place. The animation is beautiful; although the stills on the website look like poorly photoshopped images, in motion the colorized photography takes on a soft, stylized quality that compliments the hazy reality of the story.
He also adapts the Cinderella story perfectly to his setting, making it work in a way that actually manages to feel new. Ye Xian is a young Chinese immigrant who is trying to earn money to pay for her father’s medical bills. Unfortunately, she finds herself in debt to Mrs. Su, the owner of a “massage parlor.” Horrified at the prospect of doing sex work, Ye Xian attempts (unsuccessfully) to leave, and as punishment, must do all other work around the parlor: cooking, washing the floors, doing the laundry, scrubbing the toilets. As in the Chinese legend, Ye Xian receives a magic fish from Auntie Yaga, a legendary witch based from Slavic mythology who helps or harms seemingly on a whim. Will these dubious helpers be the key to uniting Ye Xian and Johnny, a young Chinese-American jazz musician? And even then, can love free her from her debts?
For a Cinderella story, Year of the Fish is impressively unafraid to show some of the terrifying conditions an immigrant might face in Chinatown. In addition to massage parlor prostitution, Ye Xian also encounters sweatshops, gangs, and exploitative contracts. The real tragedy of Ye Xian, the movie suggests, is not the actual work she ends up doing (this is far preferable to the alternative), but the powerlessness of her situation and the situation of (most) of the other girls who work for Mrs. Su. Even though the movie never “punishes” the system nor spends too much time dwelling on the horrible reality that Ye Xian’s peers have been unable to escape from, it does offer us a few shocking moments, designed to make the viewer think, that manage to be amongst the the most moving in the film.
In one particularly haunting scene, one of the other girls at the parlor, Katty, tries to reassure Ye Xian about doing sex work: “The first time is terrible. And the second time… that’s terrible too. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth. But the sixth time, the sixth time isn’t so bad” (quote inexact). The resignation in her voice and her matter-of-fact demeanor make a huge statement without feeling out of place in the story. Another troubling moment is the one glimpse we get into Auntie Yaga’s frightening sweatshop, which stayed with me throughout the rest of the film, even if Ye Xian explicitly refuses to comment on it.
In fact, it’s almost disturbing to watch Ye Xian’s unwillingness to make explicit moral judgments on the desolation surrounding her, instead focusing on her own personal choices (aka- She won’t engage in sex work herself, but she feels no particular drive to tackle the system for the sake of the other girls). This moral silence mirrors the approach of the movie itself: Year offers windows into the unspeakable, but refuses to speak about it. For the most part, this works as a powerful technique that calls upon the audience to respond; however, I found myself troubled by this approach at several points in the movie. Auntie Yaga’s sweatshop workers, uncomplaining, help Ye Xian dress for the New Year’s party (the equivalent of the Prince’s ball), but aside from that, they never speak. Unlike Ye Xian, they remain as silent as they were before the movie gave us a glimpse into their world. I kept wishing these women had a voice too, even if this perhaps did not fit the Cinderella story.
And, ultimately, this silence was my primary reservation about the film. Even as he dares to bring up taboo subjects, Kaplan keeps holding back in order to fit his story into the Cinderella tale. When Johnny and Ye Xian find each other at the end, the dark world of exploited immigrants is placed aside with so little fuss that I found it jarring. While most of the film felt like its own cohesive unit with Cinderella as its muse, the ending tied everything with a neatness that reduced it to merely being a modern Cinderella. The end’s conclusion about the power of love feels less real than Auntie Yaga, less real than the magic fish. I was willing to overlook other fairy tale elements, but since Kaplan has so clearly set his story in a world that does not guarantee “happily ever after,” a happy ending cannot come without some kind of price. I found it implausible Ye Xian would simply leave that world behind without a look back (what about Katty?) or without emotional scarring. Ultimately, the movie underestimated its own potential for sophistication.
Of course, the movie had its other flaws, most notably an overly-simplified look at what second-generation youth face in trying to build a cultural identity (Am I betraying my roots if I date a Caucasian? If I live outside of China Town?), but in the end, Year of the Fish manages to be both charming and dark, both real and mythical. Kaplan has achieved the difficult task of successfully revamping a classic story and making it his own. But despite its billing as a fairy tale, the movie truly shines when it is at its most daring. I just wish it had trusted its own potential to be richer than the mythology it draws from.