The appearance of a toy monkey unexpectedly triggers the memories of a now middle-aged sweatshop worker who fled from Vietnam with her beloved sister, her uncle and a stranger, hoping to find safe haven and a better life on foreign shores.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
"Every event in this film really happened. It's a work of fiction but it's based on fact. This is my story. My family's story. My community's story. But ultimately, this is our story." says Khoa Do in his notes for the World Premiere at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival. What Khoa Do has done is compress several of those survival stories into a single little river boat that sets out bravely and desperately to cross a sea. Do uses a theatrical device to conjure up the journey through the eyes of the woman who survived it. She is working late at the garment factory when a silly little toy monkey triggers her memories. It was their father's affectionate nickname for her younger sister, silly little monkey, that connects the past with the present. The device is effective in a raw, hard edged, theatrical sort of way, fighting as it does the essential notion of cinema as a tool for visual communication.
But Do fills his scenes with such intensity and so much emotional weight, it makes us accept the sleight of hand ... although it also tends to weigh it down. Unavoidably, given the subject matter, it's a grim story, a downbeat film whose saving grace is the heartfelt performances from the key cast. Refugees, whether Vietnamese or not, who have fled their homes in dramatic circumstances with fear whipping the wind at their backs, will readily connect with Mother Fish, and others will enjoy the challenge of a film that dares to test the boundaries.
Do finds inventive ways of making his sweatshop environment become the remembered boat journey, and (since its festival debut) has reworked the beginning and - most importantly - the ending that significantly lifts the satisfaction for the audience.
Review by Louise Keller:
Mother Fish is an overtly intense experience, as filmmaker Khoa Do gives us a semblance what it's like to be a Vietnamese boat refugee, literally hanging on the edge. Fear, despair and death are the themes that underwrite the hopes and dreams of the two men and women partaking the journey and Do's passion in telling his family's personal story is obvious. Symbolism, physicality and perspective are used as tools of communication that are more important than dialogue. Sound is also key, as are the heartfelt performances from non professional actors, who kidnap us emotionally.
Be warned, it is not a comfortable experience. And some will find it difficult to make the leap that Do requires. There is no respite and at no time does the Australian /Vietnamese writer, director, producer let us off the hook. We are there for the long haul - sink or swim. Do's vision and execution is outstanding, although his closeness to the project may have blinkered some storytelling decisions, enabling smoother pacing and a greater crescendo of emotions. The open-to-interpretation ending may divide audiences also.
The film begins with a fly-on-the-wall look at a Vietnamese woman's life. As she chops her vegetables and throws them into the wok, she listens to Parliament and the voices of politicians discussing illegal immigrants. But there's another voice in her head that comments on everything she is doing. At work in the sweatshop, the whirr of the sewing machine hums like an engine. Then she sees a little toy monkey, the significance of which we are yet to learn, and her journey of reflection begins. In a flash, she is a teenager again, hiding and cowering with her younger sister, waiting for a young fisherman and her 'uncle' to ignite the motor of the boat that changes everything. It takes a few minutes for us to adjust to and understand how Do has chosen to tell his story.
The past and present fuse: the sweatshop becomes the boat and the camera focuses solely on the emotional experience of the two men and women thrown together in this perilous situation. We do not see what they see; just their reaction to what is happening around them. We hear the crashing of waves and drone of the engine as the camera tilts from side to side. Boats go past, there are traumatic encounters with pirates as well as the reality of hunger and dehydration. Few words of significance are spoken, but essentially it is events, expressions and reactions that are more important than words in this powerful claustrophobic insight into what 1.5million fleeing refugees in the 70s and 80s experienced, of which only 900,000 survived.
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MOTHER FISH (M)
(aka Missing Water)
CAST: Kathy Nguyen, Sheena Pham, Hieu Phan, Vico Thai
PRODUCER: Khoa Do
DIRECTOR: Khoa Do
SCRIPT: Khoa Do
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Peter Holland
EDITOR: Alison McSkimming Croft
MUSIC: Alan John
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Khoa Do, Jason McGoldrick, Shane MacDonald, Guido Gonzalez
OTHER: Website: www.motherfish.com.au (for screening details)
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Titan View
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 5, 2010 (limited release)