CHINA IN YOUR HAND : Xiaolu Guo’s ‘How Is Your Fish Today?’ [8/10]

Through novel writing and film making, I try to discover how someone who has always felt like an outsider reveals the truth of human existence in a chaotic reality. I find the distance between our inner worlds and the outside world can be so far. 
                                                                                    Xiaolu GUO.

In Britain, something which doesn't conveniently fit into pre-existing categories may be described as being 'neither fish nor fowl' (or alternatively 'neither fish nor flesh.') Such terminology is often deployed with a certain degree of impatience and dissatisfaction, betraying the user's preference for neat and handy demarcations. But with her remarkable new film How Is Your Fish Today?, Xiaolu Guo reminds us that one of the tell-tale trademarks of creative intelligence is a desire to explore, test and transgress boundaries of all kinds.

In her biography and art, Guo epitomises these desires: born in a Chinese fishing village in 1973, she moved to London in 2002 to study documentary-making. The fruits: The Concrete Revolution (2004), an hour-long study of Beijing's construction industry; then How Is Your Fish Today?, which premiered at the inaugural 'BritDocs' festival at Oxford University last July and which showed in Izola alongside Guo's 11-minute short Address Unknown (2006).

In both China and Britain, however, Guo is (currently) better known for her literary output: alongside several collections of poetry and essays, there are the novels Village of Stone (China 2003; UK 2004; translated into French, Dutch, German, Portuguese and Polish), and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers (2007). The latter's nomination for the prestigious and valuable Orange Prize For Fiction propelled Guo into onto the country's artistic 'radar.'

How Is Your Fish Today? (which competed at both Sundance and Rotterdam in January, and won the Grand Prix at the Creteil International Women's Film Festival in April) cements Guo's polymath status, instantly establishing her among the most promising young film-makers in Britain (and indeed Europe) today. Guo's approach here consists of taking what appear to be starkly defined sets of opposites and blurring the distinctions between them: documentary and fiction; reality and representation; author and character; rural and urban; youth and maturity; past and present; north and south.

Her vehicle for navigating these tricky waters is the story of Hui Rao, a Beijing-based screenwriter in his early thirties working on a script entitled Northern Lights (brief episodes and stills from which repeatedly interrupt the film's 'main' narrative). The 'real' Hui Rao also happens to be Guo's co-writer on How Is Your Fish Today?, and he appears as the film's protagonist. Whereas (the fictional) Hui Rao's life is humdrum, unrewarding (he's long accustomed to having the terms of his professional existence dictated by government arts policy), relatively solitary and static, the hero of Northern Lights – 27-year-old Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang) is an impulsive rebel with a torrid love-life, who goes on the run cross-country, Fugitive-style, after seemingly slaying his girlfriend.
'Seemingly,' because it soon becomes apparent that Northern Lights is very much a work-in-progress – when Lin Hao meets the mysterious 'Mimi' (Xiaolu Guo in a droll, near-wordless femme-fatale cameo), the narrating Hui Rao admits to us that "I don't really know what to make of their relationship." Though they're in many ways opposites, Lin Hao and Rui Hao share one character-trait: a fascination with Mohe, China's northernmost town, located in the frozen extremes of Manchuria on the Russian border.

Lin Hao heads for Mohe in search of safety, redemption and salvation – and eventually Rui Hao musters sufficient energy to do the same. And as the paths of author and creator start to converge towards the same (vanishing?) point, Who Is Your Fish Today? increasingly blurs the distinction between documentary and fiction to the extent that the movie becomes what musicologists call a 'fugitive' piece – one whose authorship and derivation is a matter of debate and conjecture rather than definitive record.

These kinds of post-modern, deconstructionist high-jinks are, of course, hardly new: back in 1920 playwright Luigi Pirandello set his Six Characters in Search of an Author, while Guo (and Hui Rao) now propel their author in geographical and metaphysical pursuit of a character (and, indeed, 'of character.') In cinematic terms, recent antecedents span the high-art ludism of Jacques Rivette and the multiplex-friendly jeux d'esprit of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation.) and Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) – as the Chinese authorities would no doubt disapprovingly note, such influences mark How Is Your Fish Today? as in cultural terms essentially a western (or perhaps western-flavoured) concoction.

But Guo and (the real-life) Rui Hao manage to breathe new life into what was in danger of becoming an overused sub-genre: the sensitivity of their approach and their attention to character-detail ensure that the personages we see on screen are never mere puppets in the hands of clever manipulators. In technical terms, the film is impressive in every detail – Lu Sheng's DV cinematography capturing the sights and flavours of a dizzying range of Chinese locations, so that (partly thanks to Emiliano Battista's editing) we feel like we've covered an enormous amount of ground in a mere 83 minutes. Matt Scott's score is wittily deployed to help us distinguish between Guo's movie and Hui Rao's film-within-the-film, though of course such distinctions become fruitfully ambiguous as proceedings unfold.

Guo marshals the contributions of Lu, Battista and Scott to ensure they're always working at the service of her narrative – turning what could have been in lesser hands academic, arid and off-puttingly 'clever-clever' into an accessible, humorous and consistently satisfying work which could be an ideal stepping-stone for general audiences into the more 'challenging' current Chinese cinema of, say, JIA Zhang-Ke and YING Liang (though WONG Kar-Wai's rather more opulent tales of dissatisfied authors and arduous journeys also come to mind from time to time.)

Likewise, the post-modern conceit which underpins How Is Your Fish Today? – a jokey-sounding title which in fact works on at least three different levels at different points in the film – is very much a tool, a means rather than an end in itself. Nothing if not ambitious, Guo's aim is to dramatise the pleasures and problems inherent in the creative process – both in the universal sense, and also within the specific framework of early 21st-century China – the latter aspect allowing the viewer an understanding of a nation and a people struggling to cope with an unprecedented rate and scale of change. The pressures on the individual are, as we see from both Guo's life and her art, extreme: but, as How Is Your Fish Today? proves, the results can often be surprising, remarkable and profound.

Neil Young

11th June, 2007

HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY : [8/10] : Jin tian de yu zen me yang? : UK/China 2006 : Xiaolu GUO : 83m (approx) : seen at Art Kino Odeon cinema, Izola, Slovenia, 3rd June 2007 (public show – complimentary ticket) – Kino Otok / Izola Film Festival

this article was written for, and appears in a slightly different form in, the next issue of the Slovenia-based international film-magazine EKRAN.

[with thanks to Nika Bohinc]

more Jigsaw Lounge coverage from Izola 2007