Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Khoa Do's remarkable film, Mother Fish is being screened across Australia from this week. Sydney screenings are taking place at the Chauvel (August 5th and 6th) and at Paramatta Riverside Theaters (August 7th and 17th). Click here for more details.
Below is the review I wrote for Rotten Tomatoes when the film (originally titled Missing Water) screened in competition at last year's Sydney Film festival.
Can you imagine what it was like?
Khoa Do asks a lot from his audience in his ambitious third feature Missing Water. In this highly personal story, the director recounts the dangerous and harrowing flight of refugees from post-war Vietnam. Some 1.5 million people took to boats -- often barely warranting the name -- in the pursuit of freedom, claiming the lives of 600,000.
The most striking feature of this film is the fact that the re-enactment takes place in a sewing factory. The production designers have done an ingenious job fashioning a boat out of tables, sewing machines and racks of clothes. It may take a while to get used to the conceit, but if you can get on board (terrible pun intended), then you're definitely in for a compelling experience.
For a film so pared back in setting, the onus is more squarely on the actors to carry this story. And for the most part they succeed. The two sisters, Kim (Kathy Nguyen) and Hanh (Sheena Pham) are wonderful together; teasing and comforting each other in turn, with recurring jokes that take you to the heart of their loving relationship. Both performances develop as the film progresses and both are clearly invested in relating this story. Vico Thai as Chau also has some good moments, though his character seems to be underdeveloped compared with the sisters, which results in his story not translating as well to the audience.
However Hieu Phan powerfully embodies the character of Uncle, which is a painful re-enactment of his own journey undertaken 30 years ago. At the post screening Q&A Phan spoke candidly about how he wept during rehearsals as the memories of his experience came flooding back. So again, while his character may have been limited to the more symbolic and melodramatic scenes, no one can fault his absolute commitment to the role.
Alongside his cast, Do also shoulders the huge burden to capture this Spartan setting with innovative cinematography. Only rarely resorting to rocking the camera in mimicry, Do's compositions succeed in being emotive and intriguing. Interacting well with his set, he not only establishes the reality of this rickety boat, but captures the plight of these people in a provocatively cinematic way.
Missing Water is a courageous film on many levels. For Do, the responsibility of telling the story of his people must have been intimidating at times. So too, the decision to navigate a film set in a sewing factory and recounted in Australian English. The result may be too much of a reach for some, but for those willing to take the journey, these elements coalesce in an enlightening and moving story; one that, translated into Vietnamese, means "Missing Country".