Like Zhang Ke Jia’s Unknown Pleasures, Zhang Wei’s Fish Eyes is a bleak and brilliant portrait of life on the fringes of China’s rapid industrialization. The film, which premieres tonight at Tribeca, is a rural nightmare, continuing a recent trend in China’s emerging independent scene — small films that feel more like documentaries charting the growth of a country far too complex to be harangued by simple criticisms about industrialization, or capitalism. And while Fish Eyes is political — it’s a film the Chinese tourist bureau would probably prefer you not see — its skillful character development is evidence that the new Chinese landscape is inspiring thoughtful cinema in addition producing the world’s supply of plush toys and electronics.
To describe the plot only takes a few words, which might be just as many as those uttered by the film’s three central figures: a roguish young man, his father, and a mysterious girl who remains silent throughout, except for an isolated scream delivered during one of the few plot twists. The son is involved with some petty gangsters, and is an all around jerk, while his father holds the fort down with a dignity expressed by his lithe body, his cooking, and his affection for the young girl who seems to be filling the female void for both men. True to his selfish ways, the son involves the girl with the thugs in order to advance his stake in their syndicate; it earns him some new appliances along with other less desirable things.
Part of what makes the skeletal plot so engrossing is Wei’s refusal to show any of the action on screen. Yes there is sex and violence in Fish Eyes, but we’re continuously kept outside of it. Our voyeurism is reserved for more quotidian moments — taking showers, washing clothes, eating diner. It’s a contrast rarely exploited by directors, and by taking this road of opposites, Wei makes every moment seem revelatory, even if it’s just the father fixing a broken mirror or starting up his ancient tractor. This structure parallels the lives of Fish Eyes’ inhabitants, who are also kept out of the action of China’s new prosperity, as they are continuously reminded by broadcasts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics juxtaposed with news reports of the on-going effects of the Sichuan earthquake.
The off-screen world is also effective because it gives audiences moments to ponder during the film’s svelte 78-minute runtime. The darkness of a theater is the perfect place to let the mind wander, yet most films try to hold our hands instead of inspiring speculation. And while Fish Eyes‘ starkness might be too much for some to handle, others will be rewarded by the confidence Wei has in his audience to sift through his intimate and open-ended portrait of the New China.
Fish Eyes premieres tonight at 6:45 p.m. It also plays tomorrow, Friday, and Sunday; click here for more details.