Fish & Cat feels like a dream that’s forever threatening to turn into a nightmare. This bizarre and unsettling film, by Iranian director Shahram Mokri, is supposedly based on true events where a restaurant served human flesh, and its roughly two hours of runtime is filmed entirely in one shot. Imagine a re-enactment of a murder directed by David Lynch when he’s dreaming and you’ve got something similar to Fish & Cat.
The rough plot sounds like that of a typical slasher film: a group of students head to a remote lake in winter for a kite-flying festival and find themselves menaced by a trio of grizzly local men. Beyond this premise though, the film is unique, its single-shot take a surreal mastery of choreography and non-linear storytelling. Once the villains have been introduced, shabby restaurateurs who prey on city folk, we meet the rest of the characters one by one, their stories related through flashbacks, disjointed conversations and snippets of narration. There is very little actual conflict in the film, with violence always hinted at or occurring offscreen. This leaves it to the viewer’s imagination to piece together what is going on out of sight.
The single shot is intricate yet fluid, a work of art in itself by Mahmud Kalari, the cinematographer who worked on 2011’s A Separation. The shot follows one character and establishes their back story until another character wanders by, they talk briefly, and we follow the second character as they move off. It could be two minutes or twenty minutes later that we see this meeting seamlessly replicated so the camera can now follow the first character after their exchange. This occurs so often throughout the film that it’s difficult to place any events in chronological order, everyone’s individual stories blending together along with their past and present in an impossible tangle.
At some points the events of the film seem as unreal and detached as the stories some of the characters relate. One of them talks about a point in the past when a friend’s eye was permanently damaged in a kite accident. She appears in front of the lake, dark clouds swirling above her, as we are told from that moment she saw things that others couldn’t. Another story is told about someone who, convinced she saw a light in a reservoir that was the portal to another world, dived in and was never seen again. Other stories revolve around uncanny coincidences and their significance, and it seems all the characters are in the same mess of confusion the viewer is. One of the girls at the lake walks around with sketchpad to record the ‘time and distance’ of whatever she sees ahead of her.
Talking about the film, the director said he wanted to ‘unhinge time’ within its single take and play with expectations of time and narrative. The result is something that couldn’t really be called a horror film. Dread would be a more appropriate term. Muted colours and gothic scenery are the setting for the film which is constantly building towards something terrible occurring that never quite does. And like the worst kind of nightmares, this terror is always just around the corner, always threatening and all the more disturbing as it can’t be pinned down.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Fish & Cat is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival on Friday 13 June at 4:35pm. For more information and to purchase tickets click HERE.