Film: Cold Fish
UK Release date: 27th June 2011
Running time: 144 mins
Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Asuka Kurosawa, Mugumi Kagurazaka, Hikari Kajiwara
Studio: Third Window
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
Inspired by the Saitama Dog Lover Serial Murders that came to light in 1993, involving the exploits of Gen Sekine and his ex-wife Hiroko Kazama who would breed then sell rare hounds, killing any buyer that felt robbed by their extortionate valuations, the latest offering from cult Japanese writer-director Sion Sono (Love Exposure) swaps the lovable mutts for tropical fish. So is Cold Fish the compelling thriller it claims to be, or will we be tossing it back from whence it came?
Shamoto is struggling to run a small tropical fish shop with his second wife, Taeko, and his troublesome daughter, Mitsuko. When Mitsuko is caught shoplifting at a grocery store they meet a friendly man named Murata, who helps to settle things between Mitsuko and the store manager.
Since Murata also runs a tropical fish shop, Shamoto establishes a bond with him and they become friends. Mitsuko is offered work by Murata, who suggests she stay with him and his wife at their beautiful home, allowing Shamoto to rebuild his relationship with Taeko.
All seems well, but Murata hides many dark secrets behind his friendly exterior. Selling cheap fish to his customers for high prices with his artful lies, if anyone suspects fraud or refuses to go along with his moneymaking schemes they’re murdered and their bodies disposed.
With Mitsuko a seemingly willing hostage at Murata’s home and Shamoto fooled into becoming a business partner, it isn’t long before the mild-mannered shopkeeper has to take a stand in order to save his family, and himself...
Director Sion Sono cleverly invests so much time in establishing his (mostly likeable) characters and their inter-relationships in the hope that when he starts snuffing them out, there’s far more gravity to their deaths than you’ll find in many films of similar ilk. And the opening half hour is arguably the most entertaining, introducing us to Shamoto, a man who never amounted to much, his wife Taeko (her knockers would question her worth to the story while her fans will argue they’re all that matters), and brat Mitsuko, untroubled by Murata’s overfriendliness, as in fact, oddly, they all are.
The quirky opening act pulls the viewer into a simple world, and thanks to strong performances by all the leads, we quickly empathise with Shamoto, a man as wet as the weather, and his family as they struggle to face up to their problems. At the same time we fall for the smooth-talking, charismatic Murata, and his beautiful wife, and we’re hoodwinked by his successful business, but we’re also suspicious of their motives and keenness to befriend such a disillusioned protagonist when surely they don’t need the inconvenience. Although by now he’s a little creepy, it isn’t until Murata takes Taeko to one side that we realise this offbeat family-drama is not all it seems, and it’s also the point in which Taeko finally shows promise – her character’s interesting desire to be dominated, however, is sadly never explored further.
And what happens next is disappointing to say the least. Padding out most of the running time with lessons in how to dismember a body, intercut with dodgy double-crossings, passionless poisoning and repetitive threats to make people ‘invisible’, Sion Sono fails to find a spark for the majority of a lengthy second act. Uneventful in the extreme, it’s only worth watching if you plan on becoming a butcher. Even then, it would probably be quicker to partake in an Open University course of similar study.
The film also suffers from an extremely negative portrayal of its female characters, whether it be Taeko’s untold hankering for a high-handed partner (the perfect excuse to give her impressive globes an airing - no doubt what attracted her star-gazing husband in the first place), Murata’s indecisive wife who gets her kicks from entrusting herself to no one as long as she gets what she wants (a good excuse to get it all out), the ungrateful daughter whom apparently hates her family yet hardly utters a word in disgust, and six other teenage disciples that work for Murata at his enormous fish emporium with no hint of backstories (a good excuse to have a bit of girl on girl action though). All in all, their lack of depth is bound to leave most female viewers dumbfounded. Having said that, our planetarium-obsessed male lead is hardly blessed with any either.
With all of its horrific activity confined to the final third, Cold Fish is therefore hard work for the most part, and when it does finally indulge in the red stuff, including a fantastic struggle through slippery entrails, you’ll still be slightly surprised by Shamoto’s sudden transformation from lifeless loser to complete fruitcake. Considering the film drags on for two and a half hours that’s some statement. Still, the opening act looks very pretty, even if budget constraints confine the movie to limited locations and rather bland camerawork later on, but the effects are top notch, and this DVD release does at least offer a more interesting special feature on the true events that inspired the movie.
Cold Fish starts promisingly but loses its way during the bloodless flimsiness of its second act which refuses to end, or in fact add anything remotely interesting until the ruthless finale that lacks originality and isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. To quote our leading man, life is pain, and it doesn’t get much more painful than watching this.