“Old Fish” Review – 2009 New York Asian Film Festival

The day-to-day work of a policeman can seem banal to non-first responders. Conversely, police thrillers and TV shows are often a strange combination of hard-nosed drama and bracing action. “Old Fish,” a Chinese film portraying a cop in an extraordinary situation, turns this formula on its side.

Yu Qiling, a.k.a. Old Fish (played by Ma Guowei), is a retired army engineer turned patrol cop in the ice-bound Chinese city of Harbin. An explosives expert, he spends his time ice fishing, and getting rid of old war munitions and land mines. However, his small world changes when a series of bombs is planted around the city. With no help from other police units or the army, Old Fish is tasked as the only man who can defuse the bombs. The problem is, he doesn’t know a lot about bomb disposal, nor does he have the appropriate tools to do so. He’s forced to use rudimentary and sometimes improvised tools to defuse them, but after some initial success, he begins to worry that his luck may be running out.

While the premise may seem like a rush-filled thrill ride (think “Blown Away” with Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones), “Old Fish” is anything but. There’s no dramatic music or quick camera cuts to artificially trump up the drama. It’s a slow burner that gnaws at the nerves instead of pumping up the adrenaline.

Most important is the likeability of Old Fish, a somewhat hapless but not necessarily bumbling beat cop. Neither handsome nor rich, he’s an unassuming underdog protagonist. Ma Guowei, who is an actual retired bomb squad technician, adds a fine layer of humanity and humor to Old Fish (Ma won a Best Actor award at the Shanghai Film Festival). Each bomb scares him to the point of sweating profusely, to the point that he’s forced to take a shower after a bomb defusal. He operates under a quiet but desperate fear, knowing that a misstep could be the end of his life. It’s a far cry from the Old Fish the audience is introduced to at the opening of the film—an undistinguished officer who is jokingly prodded by his captain as someone with “no special skills.”

It’s also what makes the deliberate pacing of the movie so intense. However, even though Old Fish begins to worry that his crude methods of defusing the bombs may backfire, he begins to think less of his self-preservation and more about how no one else but him can do the job. It’s a powerful allegory for the everyday policeman’s sense of duty.

“Old Fish” screens at the New York Film Festival on Thurs., June 25, at 1:00 p.m. at the IFC Center. For tickets, go to the IFC Center Web site.