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Movie Review

Cinderella goes to Chinatown

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 19, 2008
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The ancient Chinese version of "Cinderella" on which "Year of the Fish" is based is 900 years older than Perrault's fairy tales and 1,100 years older than Disney. Comfortingly, though, most of the elements remain intact: put-upon janitorial heroine, nasty stepmother figure, fairy godmother, a ball, and of course a Prince Charming. To this "Fish" adds a fish: a wall-eyed, mystical carp who serves as the tale's narrator.

Writer-director David Kaplan rings two changes on the old folk-tale: He sets it in New York's Chinatown, and adds a layer of rotoscoped animation so that each frame glows with fairy-tale hyper-realism. Also, I don't think there were massage parlors in ninth-century China.

This is where our 17-year-old Cinderella, Ye Xian (Vietnamese-born actress An Nguyen), finds herself upon arrival in America. To work off her debt to the glowering Mrs Su (Tsai Chin of "The Joy Luck Club" in villainous mode), the girl is expected to join the ranks of jaded, Spandex-clad "masseuses" providing happy endings to a mostly white clientele. Ye Xian immediately rebels and is relegated to the status of scullery maid.

The Prince here is Johnny (Ken Leung of "Lost"), a gentle hipster musician the girl spies playing accordion in Columbus Park; the stepsisters are her fellow working girls, sweet Katty (Corrine Hong Wu) and viper-tongued Hong Ji (Hettienne Park). Fairy godmother is a frightening spirit figure named Auntie Yaga, played by Asian-American acting legend Randall Duk Kim, who also turns up as a prophesying homeless man and two or three demons.

Kaplan captures the cross-cultural bustle of Chinatown - the markets, the sweatshops, the dim sum palaces - and gilds it with as much visual magic as the budget and his computer software can muster. At times you feel as though you're watching a watercolor spring breathlessly to life. At other, lesser moments, the movie feels like the March of the PhotoShop Filter Options.

Still, a tale this elemental (and occasionally enervated) needs all the help it can get. At its best, "Year of the Fish" makes a virtue of naivete - its heroine's, its director's, and the fragile fairy-tale belief that everyone deserves a happy ending.

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