The first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.
Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.
Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.
Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.
Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.
Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.
For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.
Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.
US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)