Two dumb robbers, a disabled but tough woman, a stubborn security guard — these are the main characters of A Cool Fish, a story about nobodies (the film’s Chinese title, 无名之辈, roughly translates to “the nameless”). With Hollywood big-budget productions Venom, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Johnny English Strikes Again, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald all currently in Chinese theaters, A Cool Fish — a small-budget production lacking A-list stars — shocked industry watchers by hitting the #1 spot of the nationwide box office over the weekend. It’s also earned a rating of 9.2/10 on Maoyan, a film statistics platform, and 8.3/10 on IMDb-like review site Douban.
When A Cool Fish hit theaters on November 16, it’s safe to say that no one was expecting it to earn $10 million USD at the box office in the space of just over a week. Yet after nine days of word-of-mouth promotion across Chinese social media, people have started to compare the film to this year’s other big box office dark horse, Dying to Survive, as both films share a penchant for dark humor and realistic story lines.
As for its cinematographic style, A Cool Fish might remind cinema-goers of Ning Hao’s Crazy Stone, which featured a refreshing style of fast-paced, multi-line-narratives in 2006.
The leading actor in A Cool Fish, Chen Jianbin, plays a security guard who is aiming to find a gun that he was supposed to keep safe, but lost. Chen has previously starred in Empresses in the Palace (2011) as the Yongzheng Emperor, and his first film as a director, A Fool, won him the Golden Horse awards for Best New Director and Best Leading Actor in 2014.
Former stage actress Ren Suxi, who portrays the wheelchair-bound Ma Jiaqi in the film, became known to a wider audience after competing in this year’s season of I Am the Actor, a reality series that has just been picked up for international syndication. In one episode of the show, Ren explains her motives for competing:
The reason I came here is that… I’ve seen so many good scripts, but they don’t come to me. But I thought, actually, I’m pretty good at acting, and I want to tell them that I can do it. So I need to let more people get to know me.
In A Cool Fish, Ren portrays a character with a strong personality and complex emotions. Despite her character’s limited mobility, she conveys a fierce dynamism mainly through facial expressions and her vocal performance.
Another actor in the film, Zhang Yu, previously starred in arthouse film An Elephant Sitting Still and the previously mentioned, surprise box office success Dying to Survive, both of which were released this year and quickly attracted the spotlight and attention of critics and fans alike. Zhang Yu has garnered plenty of attention himself, as well. The 36-year-old actor from southwestern Guizhou province speaks in his local dialect in A Cool Fish, adding realistic depth to the portrayal of his character: a country boy who moves to the big city in pursuit of fortune and success, but ends up a petty thief.
(Incidentally, actress Ren also wrote one of the film’s original songs, “Hu Guangsheng,” which is the name of Zhang Yu’s character.)
When I watched the film, I noticed that the middle-aged auntie sitting to my left and the young girl to my right both cried and laughed a hundred different times throughout. The story is not perfect, and the characters look like nobodies — the strangers we encounter on the street every day. But when their stories unfold and connect in the end, the sense of powerlessness one feels when confronted with the everyday accidents and difficulties of life, as well as the will to love life and other people deeply resonates with the audience.
A Cool Fish is the second film by director and co-screenwriter Rao Xiaozhi, following his 2016 debut The Insanity. Before becoming a filmmaker, Rao directed stage plays for over a decade. Summarizing A Cool Fish in an interview earlier this month, Rao said: “What the film tries to say is that although life is bitter, we still should hold onto hope.”
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