Director: Wong Siu-Pong
2013, 72 mins
Wong Siu-pong’s engaging and socially conscious documentary wouldn’t look out of place on BBC Storyville, as it tracks in intimate detail the lives of a small group of Hong Kong school children from the city’s lower income bracket throughout one school term. They are all pupils at Fresh Fish Traders' School in Kowloon's Tai Kok Tsui district, hence the odd title of the film, which also nods to the ancient Chinese classic Zhuangzi, in which two Taoist philosophers argue about the alternating viewpoints of fish: when one philosopher comments on how happy and free the fish appear to be, the other retorts: “How does one understand the joy of fish, if one is not a fish?”.
Each of the pupils in their own way are hugely engaging, funny, and smart, with an often shocking frankness - that partly comes from the blissful ignorance of youth - about the way poverty limits their options. J is undeniably the star of this film and he seems to know it, coming off like a miniature Han Solo with a wisecrack for every scenario, his meeker classmate Jacky can only enviously acknowledge how J seems to hold the entire class in the palm of his hand whilst he can only tag along. But the documentary shows how each of these kids have, sadly, had most of their life choices made for them already by dint of their poverty, despite the school’s ‘you can make it if you try’ motto which they chant every morning. Kiki, another young girl in Js class, lives in a what seems to be a garage subdivided into 5 different apartments, there is such little room that the family’s dining table is the freezer unit. The school headmaster is so concerned that her grades are suffering that he actually drops by to visit her, bringing her a box of chocolates, and this could well be an act of charity that he has felt driven to carry out before.
This theme of masked poverty is repeated throughout the film as we learn more about the home lives of these pupils. It becomes clear that the mischeivious demeanours and scampering about of the kids in class are often concealing deeper pain that comes from the insecurity in their domestic lives. Again and again we hear of parents who have had to leave them with neighbours so they can head home to Vietnam or further afield to renew their work visas, of missed meals, or of fathers who have vanished from the family life. Also a major concern for all the families are the absurdly high property and rental prices in Hong Kong, forcing families into crowded accommodation and leaving little time and money left over for their children’s educator and wellbeing. The headmaster seems worn down by this economic reality, and speaks frankly to the camera of the uphill battle he faces, even as he knows he must give those anodyne mustering-out speeches of hope and effort at the end of term to his charges. This is the reality of modern, globalised China for those unable to ride the waves.
Wong’s film is at its strongest when it simply lets the children speak, letting us see the world through their eyes as they discuss what the notion of family means to them, and how they deal with their parents’ hopes and dreams for them. The resulting film is touching and troubling, but never sentimental.