[From September 20th to the 30th, the Korea Society in New York will be hosting a series of screenings called “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the week, we will be bringing you reviews of a select number of them. For more information, head here.]
Generally speaking, I dislike films that I don’t understand. I like to think I’m a relatively smart person, so for me to really not understand something, it either needs to be very dense or very stupid. More than that, though, there are just too many movies I want to watch to justify rewatching something on the off chance I’ll figure it out. Still, there are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes I’ll see a film that is thoroughly confusing but has a little bit of something that keeps me interested even after the credits roll. Instead of forgetting about it, I’ll talk about it. Try to parse out what made it so confusing but also why I don’t hate it. Films like that are rare, but they do exist.
Take A Fish, for example.
A Fish (Mulgogi | 물고기)
Director: Park Hong-Min
Country: South Korea
I don’t know what the plot of A Fish is. I don’t really know if there is a plot. There are a series of events, and a number of them do appear to be connected, but the nonlinear storytelling mixed with the completely unrelated fishermen sitting in a boat and talking just makes the whole thing hard to figure out. One thing’s for sure, maybe: Professor Lee is looking for his wife who has become a shaman for reasons that are not clear. But again, even that’s not 100% clear. For the most part, the film follows Professor Lee on his quest to look for his wife who has become a shaman, but maybe that’s not actually what he’s doing. Hell, for all I know the private detective that he hires to help him find his wife is actually a fish. Maybe they’re all fish.
There are two sets of characters that the film focuses on: Professor Lee and his private detective pal; and two unnamed fisherman. The film cuts between the two groups pretty frequently (up until about the two-thirds mark, where something makes one of the threads disappear), and I feel like there is some level of logic connecting the two of them. The fishermen spend basically their entire onscreen time talking about the life and death of fish. They wonder what the fish think and feel when they see bait on a hook. They muse about whether or not they know that the bait will lead them to their death. They reflect on whether or not it is seen as some sort of heaven. But, of course, they’re just fish. They don’t think about any of that. They don’t really think at all. At least not in terms that we could relate to. The name of the film may or may not come from the men on the boat, since they catch a single fish over the course of their dialogue. There is quite a bit of drama surrounding that fish, and then even more surrounding the characters and their relationship. But since I actually enjoyed seeing the way their scenes escalated, I will say no more.
I don’t like the idea of trying to put words in the mouth of a writer or director. It has always struck me as pretentious that people think they can really delve into the mind of the creators and pull out things that the creators never thought of or intended. With that in mind, I’m not going to talk about my interpretation of certain scenes from the film. In some ways, certain characters seemed to be commenting on the film itself (and perhaps just film itself), and I don’t think it would be too difficult to make a case for that. But unless director Park Hong-Min tells someone that’s what they represent, I wouldn’t feel right saying it. Especially considering I have no idea what’s going on. To attempt to pull something that makes me sound all analytical and whatnot out of a film that I truly didn’t understand would be absolutely ridiculous of me. So why tell you all of this? Because it’s strange that a movie makes me try to think that deeply into things.
By the end of A Fish, I had legitimately given up on attempting to understand what was going on. I realized that a single viewing wasn’t enough, and I would need to see it at least three more times if I really wanted to get a grasp on things. Freed of any worry about what was going on, I was able to just sit back and witness it. I enjoyed witnessing it. Maybe. The craziness escalates and escalates, and the payoff for everything certainly is crazy. Oh so crazy. Crazy is a good word to describe the film. Legitimately batshit insane.
I don’t really know what A Fish is. As an entity it is such so bizarre that I have trouble putting into words my feelings about it. For all I know, it’s the best movie I have ever seen. I don’t think so… but it’s certainly not the worst. Perhaps it just is. I think I’ll watch it again in a year or so. By then maybe I will have had some massive insight that allows me to see deep into the mind of the filmmaker. Knowing what I know from the ending will certainly change the way I see the beginning. Will it improve it? Maybe. But it may also serve to make the film far more confusing, which is noteworthy in and of itself.
Is this whole thing kind of noncommital? You bet it is, but I think that A Fish is worth seeing. And if you see it, please come back and explain it to me.