It's a semi-animated modern-day retelling of "Cinderella." It features a disappearing fortuneteller and her mystical servants. It's narrated by a giant talking koi. So why isn't Year Of The Fish more magical? To some degree, it's trying to find the magic in the everyday, but the attempts to ground it are cringe-inducing and problematic: There's a sizeable conflict between fairy-tale enchantment and raw exchanges like "Where'd you learn to cook like this?" "My mother teach me." "She should have taught you how to suck dick. You be better off."
The story starts in New York's Chinatown, where shy Chinese expat An Nguyen arrives to earn money for her ailing widower father. In traditional immigrant-story fashion, she winds up committed to years of servitude to her financial sponsor, snappish older relative Tsai Chin. Again per tradition, the work is degrading: As Chin's brashest employee (Hettienne Park) reveals, Chin is madam over a sexual massage parlor. Humiliated, Nguyen flees, but she has nowhere to go, and Chin has her passport. When Nguyen cringes from clients, she's forced to cook, scrub toilets, and endure Park and Chin's abuse. Her only consolations are the fish a mysterious, hideous blind hunchback gave her, and her tenuous feelings for an accordion player (Ken Leung) she glimpsed on her first day in town.
First-time writer-director David Kaplan cut his teeth on short-film versions of other fables, and with Year Of The Fish, he tries to mate an old Chinese take on "Cinderella" with a modern-day story. But his contemporary updates—a near gang-rape, graphic dialogue about anal play—sour the drifty magical realism and make the idealized, sentimental romanticism feel false. The fable's broad character dynamics—evil stepmother, ugly stepsisters—don't translate well into a real-world setting, where they just produce shallow, cartoony villains. But mostly, Kaplan just doesn't take enough advantage of his animation. He shot the film on digital video in a drearily conventional style, then rotoscoped his images into luminous, impressionistic pastels, but he mostly uses the technique as a simple process to soften his shots' raw edges, rather than to play with captivating new realities that he couldn't have managed in live action. A few Waking Life-esque drawn-in details—a moon framed in animated swirls, or the throbbing eyes of a supernatural servant—show the potential of Kaplan's visuals, and a sweet, dreamy coda highlights a softer tone. But for all his ambition, creativity, and seeming sincerity, he's wound up with a stylistic mishmash that's stuck midway between staying grounded and committing to its flights of fantasy.