Tropical Fish ends with a dedication to those who daydream. It’s a message that permeates this often laugh-out-loud funny story, committed to seeing the slant angles of life and, to this end, filled with moments of wry observation, social satire, outright surrealism and dark revelations, not forgetting the odd poo joke along the way.
Zhiqiang is a boy who dreams. He dreams of winning the heart of the girl at the bus stop, he dreams of outsmarting his disciplinarian teacher. Mostly he dreams of tropical fish. Most people around him, though, don’t seem to be built that way. The only dream that matters is passing the liankao – the all-important high school entrance exam.
Things take a turn when Zhiqiang thinks he can help with a kidnapping case and ends up being kidnapped himself by a corrupt ex-cop and his amiable kidnapper-with-a-heart friend. Thrown together with a young bespectacled fellow kidnappee, Zhiqiang finds himself eventually transported to a fishing village in Chiayi county, where a whole family of ad-hoc kidnappers take him under their wing. With the liankao mere days away and the national news media decrying the tragedy of the poor kidnapping victim unable to sit his exam, the adoptive family insists Zhiqiang studies for the test, his kind hearted kidnapper sweetly shuttling between the village’s one teacher to relay questions and answers.
The film works in part because of its sheer exuberance and confidence: the film sets out its stall early as tropical fish are presented in oversaturated neon hues. Later, Zhiqiang, surrounded by the muted greys and blues of urban streets, discusses his dream of travelling in a submarine and we are treated to a technicolour imaginary sequence in which Zhiqiang travels an underwater world populated by polystyrene sea-life and enticed ever onwards by his would-be girlfriend in the guise of a mermaid.
Much of the comedy derives from strong performances. In particular, Lin Jiahong plays Zhiqiang with a beautifully-judged combination of awkwardness and insouciance. His attempts to subtly pass a note to the girl at the bus stop are a masterclass in shyness and dignity as he edges towards her, face turned away as if disassociated from his actions.
The running satire throughout is the obsession with exam success. But while lampooning the liankao, the film has something serious to say about opportunity, too. Daydreams are a luxury for those with opportunities ahead, and there’s a seam of social commentary that runs throughout, from the kidnappers to the family struggling to make ends meet as they take meals together in six inches of water, a problem they know won’t be solved any time soon by the indifferent government in Taipei.
Apart from the humour and social commentary, Tropical Fish also works on the level of a compelling story. The structure of the liankao getting ever nearer keeps things moving and maintains a steady tension. Will the kidnappers get the money? Will the boys escape? Will Zhiqiang pass his exam? Will he get the girl? Here’s to the daydreamers.