It’s safe to say that I didn’t expect to be sitting through the end credits of Iranian post-modern slasher film Fish & Cat with the biggest and goofiest grin on my face but that’s how it was at the State Theatre, a large portion of the audience swiftly making their way to the exits before the lights came up as I tried not to cackle like a delirious maniac in the mezzanine. Shahram Mokri has made a film so unexpected in both content and execution that it’s hard not to be impressed, even on an initial structural level. For one, a 134-minute runtime for a one-take film is awe-inducing on its own but it’s the fact that this visual splendor is matched by a narrative that tethers itself, almost academically, to the elements of the slasher genre, undercutting tension and expectation consistently, that allows it to be a wholly unique cinematic venture and a perfect example of what Sydney Film Festival competition films should be.
Mokri, originally a mathematician, has crafted a plot that loops in on itself, inspired by Escher and akin to Primer perhaps, although the two films have completely different aims and levels of complexity. Where Shane Carruth’s film is meant to be understandable (eventually), Mokri’s exists as a merger of complex plotting and dream logic.
The narrative is set up through an opening title card which reveals the basis for the plot – a true story about an Iranian restaurant using human meat in their food. From this we follow two employees of said restaurant, which is on a lake, as they try to get enough meat ready for that night. Lucky for them, though, despite no animals getting caught in their traps, a camp of teenagers participating in a kite-flying competition is being set up on the other side of the lake. As mentioned already, instead of playing the film straight and having these tenagers be picked off one-by-one, Mokri prevents us from seeing much of what would be considered the natural progession of tension by having scenes repeat themselves, albeit from the perspectives of different characters. Where this could be seen as an interesting structural device on its own, the fact that Mokri and his team are able to achieve these perspectives all within the one long take is an astounding achievement in narrative storytelling.
Following on from his first feature film, 2009’s Ashkan, the Charmed Ring and Other Stories, which is a series of interlinked short narratives that are “more akin to Jim Jarmusch than Tarantino”, he seems set on the notion of human interconnectedness, hence the devotion of screentime in Fish & Cat to ruminating conversations about love, regret and dependency.1 This, once more apparently, calls to mind Jarmusch and even Richard Linklater – the way the camera jumps from character to character feels like a play on the narrative form of Slacker.
The jumping between characters is also a means through which Mokri intelligently satirises the tropes of slasher films. Rather than have teenage caricatures who find themselves on the wrong end of a meat cleaver, Mokri grants almost every person in the film a level of emotional depth which is mostly unheard of in the genre. Even the two restaurant employees exist as alternate versions of Estragon and Vladimir from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, their repeated humorous arguements imbued with a sense of both the existential and fate itself, time then guiding them as much as they are guiding the fates of the teenagers.
Morki swaps out the expectation of sudden violence for character development in a way that is both engaging and playful, with each new duologue the promise of bloodlust wanes. This shift from traditional slasher to a dialogue-heavy affair may have been what has irked a lot of audiences, that the film actively sets out to frustrate, most notably through its retrospectively superb opening title card. Once the intention of the filmmaker becomes clear, though, the notion of obsfuscating the narrative through looping and, despite the level of intricacy, managing to avoid showing any on-screen deaths, the film’s narrative should be seen as something wholly amusing.
That’s not to say there isn’t a body count – it is a ‘slasher’ film after all, no matter how loosely. Mokri uses a non-linear time structure to play with our narrative orientation, to the extent that it is not always apparent when someone has been offed. However, the clues are there, in a stray foot under leaves and an item handed to someone near the film’s end revealing two kills never seen on screen and one not even hinted at up to that point at all. In retrospect, too, when trying to unravel the plot order and sequence of events, surprises will arise with regard to catalysts for scenes. It’s a film you’re meant to ruminate on and a puzzle, not necessarily meant to be solved, but to be savoured.
As the narrative progresses (or regresses), the camera remains surprisingly spry – even as the film nears its third of fourth loop around it maintains a playful focus and energy that matches that of the mostly young cast. The cinematography was better than any one-take film this side of Russian Ark, beautifully capturing the woods and lake area, imbuing it with wonder and a sense of the unknown. Cinematographer Mahmud Kalari, of A Separation, crafts a surprisingly beautiful visual style through restraint; mostly shot with greys and browns, the bursts of colour, Mina’s jacket, for instance, feel like another means through which to break the expectations and confines of the genre. At other points in the film, the frame itself is subtlely altered, a black shadow creeps in from the corners and, when coupled with the evocative score by Christophe Rezai, is able to set up moments of tension sans narrative drive.
Mokri has said that, with Fish & Cat, he wanted to “challenge our regular thoughts about time” and I think he does so with aplomb. Not only does he use the one-take form to give us a real and palpable sense of the lake area (we walk it with them), the consistency of the visual style allows the time period of the film to feel like an endless moment – despite talking about the seeing lamp lights from the kites at night we’re never given the opportunity. Nods to confinement, as in the twins that call to mind both Alice in Wonderland and The Shining, as well as the inherent nature of confinement in a time loop – Mokri’s film is the best merger of time and place in a non-linear structure since Nacho Vigalondo‘s Timecrimes.
Mokri’s film is audacious and cutting edge, boldly modern in approach and actuality (digital camera technology helps a lot here) yet strongly connected to earlier texts of stage and screen. He has shown not only a mastery of genre but also small vignettes, which, though not always as engaging as intended, manage to craft characters efficiently and make them mostly memorable. Fish & Cat is the work of an interesting talent in cinema today, original, unique and worth viewing over and over again.
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