Lin Jia Hong, Lin Cheng-Sheng, Shi Ching-Luen, Fan Hsiao-Fan
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…reminds us of how much value imagination holds and teaches us to never let go of it; no matter how hard reality tries to take it away from us.
The first time we meet our protagonist in the film Tropical Fish, he is in the middle of a dream. He fantasises about going up to a girl at a bus stop and handing her a note. A fitting introduction to our main character, who prefers to act inside his head rather than in reality, and a fitting beginning for a story that feels as if it is also the imaginary creation of our protagonist.
Chen Yu-Hsun paints a vivid picture of our creative main character Liu through colourful dream sequences as well as his depiction of youthful nights at the arcade in which the boy secretly shares a cigarette with his best friend. Liu is a detached young boy, and with an extremely important exam coming up that could decide his future, reality is beginning to intrude on his fantasy world.
A few days before the exam, Liu is kidnapped in the process of trying to save another boy. The kidnappers claim that they will hold the two boys until a ransom has been paid by Liu’s father. But when the man behind the whole kidnapping operation dies, it leaves Liu and the kidnapped boy in the hands of the dead man’s good-hearted sidekick, Ah Ching (Lin Cheng-Sheng).
The film begins to lean into absurd humour as Ah Ching and his family treat the two boys like their own. The boys eat with them, go swimming, go out on the boat and are given help with study. The whole family assures Liu that they will have him back for the exam, comedically stressing the importance of this school test.
The whole plot feels like a scenario that a child has created in order to get out of doing something. In this case, Liu has created a far-fetched narrative to help him get out of doing the exam. We see television footage of news presenters and scenes with Liu’s parents where they all worry about whether he will be back in time to sit the exam. The reactions of other people mirror what Liu thinks they care about the most.
In Taiwan, the joint entrance exam decides whether kids will be able to get into high school and university. Chen Yu-Hsun seemingly pokes fun at the absurd importance placed on this one test.
Liu fits right in with Ah Ching’s family. He treats the other kidnapped boy like a brother, falls in love with one of the girls in the family and we see him begin to hope he can be stuck with the family for as long as possible.
Each character in the family is an individual and brings their own comedic value to the story. The film does a great job at making the viewer feel a part of this family as well. It does seem to lag as it begins to follow unrelated threads and ideas during the second act. But it certainly manages to steer back on track for the finale.
The film is about childhood and the conflict between imagination and reality. It often shows the beauty of the former and the unforgiving nature of the latter. After being so caught up in the whimsical story, we are literally shocked back to reality. The film reminds us of how much value imagination holds and teaches us to never let go of it; no matter how hard reality tries to take it away from us.