Fantastic Review: Cold Fish

By  · Published on August 15th, 2011

Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2010, but every word of it still applies today as Cold Fish sees a limited release this week.

The key to making someone disappear is to cut up the body into tiny bite sized chunks and to separate the meat from the bone. From there, you can burn the bones in an industrial barrel and drop the diced human into the river to be eaten by the fish. It takes a time commitment, but it’s really a simple procedure.

This is just one of the many lessons presented in the movie Cold Fish, the new work from Sion Sono that tells the story of Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), a timid tropical fish store owner who is bullied by his daughter and shut out from sexual intercourse by his wife.

Murata (Denden), a fellow entrepreneur in the fish world, helps the family out by employing the rebellious daughter, leaving the household open for fornication to commence, and making Shamoto his latest business partner on a big score. Of course, all of this comes at a heavy cost, and Shamoto soon learns how to make someone disappear.

There is a lot going on here, and it all comes fast and furious like a madman shoving a switchblade into your collar bone. The film is almost unrecognizable as a Sion Sono film; the director is quickly proving himself to be a filmic chameleon, even if he consistently returns to themes of defining family, sex, and power.

Those themes are obvious here, especially for anyone familiar with his previous work like Noriko’s Dinner Table and Love Exposure. Murata takes over the role as father figure to Shamoto’s daughter when he employs her. He takes on the role as husband when he not-as-forcefully-as-expected takes Shamoto’s wife on the floor of his office. Each role and family presence is reversed and sometimes re-reversed within the story, and it does nothing but add to the depth and viciousness of the power struggle.

Unlike films like Funny Games, where characters frustratingly don’t fight back even in the face of their own doom, Cold Fish takes a main character and drives him further into the black market and pocket of a more powerful individual without the full scope of the situation even apparent. Shamoto gladly gives up his bratty daughter to someone who can discipline her, and he gladly reaches out for the opportunity to make more money (especially since there isn’t a single scene in his fish store that features a customer). It isn’t until he’s complicit in illegal acts that he fully understands what he’s getting himself into, and by then, it’s too late. By then, the weight of his troubles has come crashing down on his psyche.

This is Sono’s fastest paced movie, and with that comes some of the most intense acting work he’s ever drawn out of the talent on screen. Fukikoshi and Denden are both monsters with human skin attached. The former displays a range that’s only dreamed of by most actors, and he emerges from his plight as a weak sycophant to become a man whose words could skin a man alive. Denden is ferociously bi-polar – grinning from ear to ear even as he slices the smile off of a dead body’s face.

Oh, yes, then there’s the blood.

Make no mistake about this being a powerful drama that plays out in reams of dialog and threats. It’s an intense drama that plays out in an industrial barrel in the backyard. The gore here is grisly and realistic whether it’s coming from the mess made cutting up a body on the bathroom floor or straight from someone’s neck who’s just been stabbed with a common household tool. It felt more than once like the Coen Brothers had directed a Japanese crime film.

It’s beautiful and a little unsettling, but it only adds to the realism that Sono manages to shove into an over the top concept.

Over all, that concept (which happened to have been inspired by true events) is painted gorgeously on the screen in a tale of the powerful and the weak, the fear of facing manhood, and the price of doing business with the devil. It works as a thriller, as a Se7en-style slasher film from the other side of the law, and based on the information it doles out, a handy how to on disposing of the bodies of your enemies.

The trick is separating the bones from the body.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.