Fish & Cat First Perspective: All Mise-En-Scene and No Montage? No Problem!

in 28th Festival International de Films de Fribourg

by Alissa Simon

Inspired by a news item about a provincial restaurant that served human flesh, director-screenwriter Shahram Mokri’s idiosyncratic second feature initially looks as if it might be the first Iranian slasher movie, but all is not as it seems. Filmed in one long, bravura shot by top cinematographer Mahmud Kalari (A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)), Fish & Cat (Mahi va Gorbeh) combines formal experimentation with a sly sense of humor and a surprising feeling for American genre conventions.

All mise-en-scene and no montage? No problem. The film manages to be both narrative and non-linear as the camera’s complex choreography creates fissures in time, piling on stories within stories that trap viewers in an increasingly ominous, often repetitive nightmare.

The circular action begins at ramshackle restaurant apparently run by the strange and sinister cooks Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar), and then cycles to the nearby forest and lake where a group of students, who have come to participate in a kite flying competition, pitch their tents. Mokri immediately establishes an eerie yet blackly comic atmosphere that recalls the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other similar genre titles as a lost city slicker tries to get directions from Babak.

Eventually, Babak and Saeed meander into the forest carrying sharp knives and a rancid smelling plastic bag that oozes blood. Their peculiar conversation concerns characters that make a memorable appearance towards the end of the film, namely their colleague Hamid and his identically dressed, one-armed twins.

To adhere to the strictures of the single shot, new characters enter and exit the frame and the sinuously gliding camera may (or may not) choose to follow them. Thus we meet the distinctively coiffed Kambiz as well as his obsessive father, who may (or may not) fall victim to Babak and Saeed.

Although Mokri employs some horror genre conventions (particularly sound effects) in order to build a mood of dread, he refrains from showing graphic violence. Instead, dreadful deeds and creepy sights are described in an odd variety of contexts, leaving audiences to imagine the worst.

The episode that generates the most tension comes when Babak bullies the pretty Parvaneh into following him into the forest on the pretext of needing her help to fix a valve that will prevent the flooding of their campsite. Some audience members may be tempted to yell at the screen, “Don’t do it.”

Meanwhile, down by the lake, handsome Parviz (Abed Abest) is sporting an unexplained, bloody wound on his forehead and juggling the attention of several young women, some of whom seem to be current and past loves. As he wanders around the campsite registering the competitors and their kites, his gear mysteriously goes missing.

Throughout the film, Mokri plays with various forms of narration. Sometimes, for no particular reason, we gain access to the thoughts of different characters, yet these thoughts are rarely pertinent to the situation at hand. Instead, they further serve the helmer’s intent of bending time and often add a dose of humor.

Despite being over-long and a tad too talky, the film is perversely compelling. Like Mokri’s debut feature Ashkan, The Charmed Ring And Other Stories, it experiments with non-linear narrative, thriller elements and point of view, here pushing them to the nth degree.

To achieve the smooth choreography of his single shot, Mokri and outstanding DoP Kalari rehearsed with the actors (who hail mostly from the theater) for an entire month. Kalari filmed with a Sony Nex-VG20, creating a slightly sepia tone in which the bloody reds really pop. The unsettling score by Christophe Rezai is suitably dirge-like and occasionally reminiscent of the music of Michael Nyman.

Alissa Simon