The county of Mohe is the coldest place in China, a region where snow covers the ground for more than half of the year and China’s lowest ever temperature of -52 degrees was recorded in 1956. Located in Heilongjiang province on the Russian border, Mohe is often referred to as China’s ‘North Pole’ and attracts tourists during the summer months when daylight can last up to 20-hours, although it is a less appealing destination in winter when the sun sets around 3pm and the extremely low temperatures cause the batteries of electronic equipment to cease operating. So far, so Wikipedia, but the appeal of Mohe becomes more elusive when filtered through the lens of Xiaolu Guo, the novelist and filmmaker whose literary works include the novels A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) and UFO in Her Eyes (2009). Xialou travelled to Mohe with a small crew to shoot a documentary that had been commissioned by the British Documentary Foundation, but arrived in the region to discover that, aside from the admittedly striking surrounding landscape, there was relatively little local activity to film. Rather than abandon the project, Xialou opened her contacts book and reconnected with Beijing-based screenwriter Hui Rao with a view to collaborating. The result of this hybridity is How is Your Fish Today?, an engaging exercise in meta-fiction that enables Xialou to merge her documentary about Mohe with a study of Hui’s struggle to complete a commissioned screenplay concerning a young man on the run from the law. Hui’s screenplay was initially modelled on the Harrison Ford blockbuster The Fugitive (1993), but has since taken on a more existential quality as his central character travels from Southern China to the Northern Capital of Beijing, and eventually out to Mohe. These fictional segments are juxtaposed by Xiaolu with footage of Hui’s low-key lifestyle and the screenwriter’s speculations about Mohe, a place that he read about at school in geography class.
It is when contrasting the daily routine of the screenwriter with the plight of his fictional protagonist that How is Your Fish Today? is at its most fascinating. The title refers to the goldfish that Hui has been advised to keep in his back room by a feng shui master, and taking care of it is one of the daily chores that Hui that deals with when not trying to deliver a satisfactory draft of his latest screenplay to a producer who will withhold his fee until all the commercial requirements have been met. In terms of the Chinese film industry, Hui would be considered one of the ‘Sixth Generation’ if he had achieved more success; although he is a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, his screenplays have not received the stamp of approval from the state film bureau and he pays the rent by writing soap operas and appearing on late-night television to introduce screenings of such Hollywood movies as The Interpreter (2005) and King Kong (2005), neither of which is likely to be included in his extensive collection of bootleg DVDs. We learn that Hui’s friends are mostly also screenwriters or directors, that he hosts gambling nights at his home as he is the only one who does not have a family, eats at the restaurant downstairs because it serves his favourite dish of Chairman Mao’s stewed pork, works out at a gym that is just five minutes from his flat, and has a pack-a-day smoking habit. By contrast, the life of Lin Hao – the character in Hui’s screenplay – is more eventful, although for how long he will remain free is uncertain; Lin has killed his girlfriend following an argument and gone on the run, trying to evade capture by traveling from South to North. Bored with life in Beijing, Hui follows the lead of his fictional fugitive and embarks on the long train journey to Mohe.
Due to Xiaolu’s dual-status as insider and outsider – she was educated at Beijing Film Academy but was raised in a peasant community in the South East of China – both strands of How is Your Fish Today? are equally interesting and informed by experience; Beijing is an urban labyrinth of bustling city streets and elaborate ring-roads where writers like Hui mind their own business and keep to their own social circles, while the towns and cities on the industrial outskirts that Lin spends time in await urbanisation. Dramatizing the imagined escape of Lin from the authorities takes in some strangely memorable locations, such as the cheap hotel where he shares a basement room with a talkative salesman and the station platform in the middle of nowhere that shows momentary signs of life when travellers drag their luggage across the ground towards the awaiting train. Unfortunately, the final third of the film loses momentum as the real and the imagined meet on the journey to Mohe, only for both strands to dissolve in favour of some unremarkable footage of the region that only serves to illustrate why Xiaolu felt the need to drastically alter her approach. Some final thoughts from Hui – his impressions of Mohe and the longing that the place stirs for the home town that he has not returned to for five years – strive to tie everything together, but such sentiments are not particularly satisfying after the intellectually involving meta-narrative that has proceeded them. Although the remarkable documentaries The Concrete Revolution (2004) and Once Upon a Time Proletarian (2009) are more fully realised examples of Xiaolu’s abilities as a filmmaker, the fact that a film as intriguing as this could emerge from a project that others would have abandoned is credit to her talent and tenacity. There may not be any great mystery to Mohe, but for at least one hour, How is Your Fish Today? skilfully suggests otherwise.
For further reading on Xiaolu Guo, check out my interview with the director at The Big Picture.