By Azadeh Jafari
Obsessive memories from the past haunt Yi-An, a sad, inattentive little boy who claims that he remembers his previous mother and his past life by the sea. In reality, Yi-An’s grandpa has fallen ill and needs constant care, which forces his mother to take him and go live with her sister—a situation similar to that of the female protagonist in A Separation (2009). (Asghar Farhadi’s film comes to mind again during A Fish Out of Water when Yi-An’s father tries to bathe Grandpa and eventually breaks down in tears: the scenes are nearly identical.)
First-time director Lai Kuo-An, who has previously collaborated with Hou Hsiao-hsien, works in a way similar to the giants of the Taiwanese New Wave, juxtaposing characters’ internal struggles with family dynamics to depict broader issues—namely, how the fast-paced, money-driven, atomized nature of modern Taiwanese life clashes with a longing for a collective past. Unfortunately, A Fish Out of Water fails to transform Yi-An’s inner visions into anything truly eerie or supernatural, nor does it intensify the tension between his parents in a truly compelling way. There is some strong filmmaking in the final passages, however, balancing images with voiceover in a dreamlike, beautiful way. The ending strengthens both the possibility and the ambiguity of there being a truly spiritual dimension to Yi-An’s story: is the child experiencing visions of a past life? Or is that yearning just a reaction to a harsh, unmagical reality?