Very rarely does a female Korean character appear at the forefront of an American cinematic venture, let alone a character who is also queer and an immigrant.
In “Fish Bones,” fashion model Joony Kim stars as Hana, a young college student, waitress and aspiring model who falls in love with Nico (Cris Gris), a music producer. Sequences of Hana’s present-day life on winter break at her parents’ house are interspersed with flashbacks to her former relationship with Nico, the flashback sequences presented in a nonlinear format.
It is a careful, painfully slow film — and it is about as bare-bones as the title implies.
Hana’s principal conflict arises from her blossoming awareness of her sexual orientation colliding with her awareness that her conservative, religious family will not accept her relationship with a woman. The romance also suffers because of the film’s execution, which mainly focuses on mundane, everyday conversations that do not further develop the relationship nor intensify its emotional value. It’s realistic, but it isn’t very interesting.
The film is also indecisive about whether or not to focus on Nico beyond her relationship with Hana — there is a scene in which Nico and Hana have dinner with Nico’s family, which knows about their relationship, but it includes almost nothing else about Nico that goes beyond her sexual orientation. Because of this, she also remains a flat, uninteresting character.
To be fair, the decision to make this a highly restrained film with little substantial dialogue seems justified when considering that many queer immigrants and children of immigrants are silenced by the societal prejudices of their cultures. But is there value in continuing to focus on this aspect of the queer experience, especially when presented in such an unsympathetic, one-dimensional manner?
By shying away from clearly depicting the anxieties of being closeted to one’s family, the film loses the opportunity to go against the emotional-repression norm of this experience. Relying on silence and terse dialogue to parallel the reality of cultural homophobia limits the film’s potential to be subversive.
Despite its intention to tell a story rarely heard in the American cinematic landscape, the film falls flat emotionally. The desperately needed representation, while absolutely refreshing, doesn’t redeem the superficial nature of the film.
It is, however, a step in the right direction. With “Fish Bones,” writer-director Joanne Mony Park proved her commitment to telling untold stories — a dedication desperately needed today, in films and beyond.