Not all things discovered in mysterious small packages are good. Several packages containing volatile home-made time bombs, for instance. Objects that can paralyse a city, waste civil resources and, if not dealt with promptly and carefully, lead to the loss of innocent limbs and lives.
Unfortunately, it’s a scenario that, today, we can appreciate all too well.
Utilising such assumed knowledge within its audience, Old Fish actually steps back from any sort of commentary on this particular infliction of terror to instead develop an incredibly tense narrative around the plight of the one person who everyone else believes has the skills necessary to deal with the threat. This is where ideas of heroism emerge and are celebrated, of course – not so much in one’s consciously motivated actions as in the impressions those apparently brave and selfless acts leave on others, who in this case are an aged cop’s younger, less experienced and mostly inept colleagues.
Through a series of increasingly tense and at first absurd but then perverse sequences, the veteran cop is called open to defuse and dispose of nasty explosives hidden in various areas around the densely populated city. Who is plating the bombs we do not find out until the very end of the picture – it’s not important. What’s at stake is the life, health and sanity of this likable duffer, who is unfairly thrust into danger by his superiors due a lack of officiousness, planning and – frankly – care.
While Old Fish delivers suspense and tension magnificently, humorous moments are just as brilliantly interspersed as relievers – often with the cop’s ingenious jury-rigging as the basis (like when a fishing rod is used to extract a bomb from the innards of a tall chimney). The support characters are important too, serving as more carefree and bumbling foils to the mostly serious and inexpressive old-time cop (played by a real cop, apparently, in a pretty astonishing first-time amateur performance).
Although on the surface Old Fish might seem quite brutal in the way its plot hinges on upping the ante from one bomb disposal to another, it actually/also manages to be quite lyrical. David Bordwell has pointed out how director Gao makes unconventional use of shot scale to confound audience expectations at crucial moments, treating us to a rare experience. Scenes between successive bombs are preciously utilised, too, not just to pace the drama and break-up the repetition/variation of the master sequences, but also to take us away from the central action for a few moments to show us the old cop’s wife and a home life that seems so vastly removed from his present comic-nightmare circumstances.
If recent recent non-mainstream films from mainland China have left you emotionally cold, intellectually befuddled, or simply wondering when European art cinema invaded (what happened Wang Chao?), look no further for a satisfying antidote.