Khoa Do's personal tribute to the plight of the Vietnamese refugees who travelled to Australia in junks and trawlers in the late '70s and early '80s. The appearance of a toy monkey unexpectedly triggers the memories of a now middle-aged sweatshop worker who fled from Vietnam with her beloved sister, her uncle and a stranger hoping to find safe haven and a better life on foreign shores. Working with non-professional actors, themselves refugees or descendents, Do’s bravura move is to keep the action located in the present reality of the sweatshop (a constant reference point for the death of dreams) and to gradually transform the physical space into clapped-out boat and open seas. The horror of the journey — brutal pirate attack, aggressive border police, the onset of hunger — is rendered all the more devastating by the gap between experience, memory and aspiration.

An outstanding achievement.

Editor's Note: Mother Fish was programmed under its original title, Missing Water, when it screened at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival. The original SBS Film review has been amended to reflect the film's new title.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: International cinema has a major new filmmaking talent in Khao Do, whose standing worldwide will soar in the year ahead as screenings of his third film Mother Fish become must-see events at film festivals and arthouse cinemas everywhere.

Drawing from the experiences of his Vietnamese country people and in part, upon his own journey as a refugee who arrived in Australia in 1980, the director has crafted a film of extraordinary beauty, deeply unsettling terror and profound emotion. Most tellingly, he displays an understanding and application of technical prowess that Australian cinema has not seen in many years. Do tells a story specific to Australia’s refugee history but honours the plight of the displaced the world over, with a brilliant device that neutralises the setting. More on this later"¦

The story is set in motion when a middle-aged woman working in a suburban sweatshop has her memory triggered by a little toy monkey, which we learn was her father’s pet name for her when she was small child in Vietnam. She is soon re-imagining the night she and her sister fled her homeland, led by an uncle promising to reunite them with their father and a young man seeking hope but who is just as frightened.

The group’s boat is unprepared for ocean voyaging; their food and water is low, their engine broken, the threat of rape and death at the hands of brutal South-sea pirates all-too real (and fully-realised in one devastating scene). A chance arrival in Thailand is thwarted by local authorities; a growing affection within the group is tragically cut short. The pall of desperation and death soon settles over them.

A gruelling, powerful story in itself, but Do is determined to make you experience this journey as much as possible. To achieve this, he undertakes an extraordinarily brave directorial decision: he sets all the action entirely within the sweatshop. A bench of sowing machines, a rack of fabric, the spindles of cotton – under the inspired eye of the writer/director and his cinematographer Peter A. Holland (utilising every inch of his 2:35:1 widescreen), the sparse garage where the woman earns her meagre living is transformed into the high seas. It is a triumph of the imagination. The sounds of open-ocean travel are recreated with world-class precision by the team at The Sergery Sound post-production house, for whom Mother Fish is their crowning achievement to date.

The effect upon the audience at the Sydney Film Festival screening was tangible and undeniable. Forced to imagine the brutal seascape that the group of four had to endure, the viewer must engage or be left behind. The film never allows any remit from the arduous, life-threatening journey the two girls are upon, nor is the audience allowed to disengage when tragedy strikes or emotions are laid bare. For much of the film, audience members were sobbing openly. In this sense alone, Mother Fish is a unique cinematic experience.

As a technical master with a firm grasp of framing and blocking, Khao Do shows experience beyond his years. But the film also lifts Do into the realm of the great directors able to elicit performances from a non-pro cast. As the two sisters, young actresses Kathy Nguyen and Sheena Pham give heartbreaking, unforgettable performances; Vico Thai as the young man, Chau, struggles with some early line-readings but conveys the desperation in the final scenes convincingly. Hieu Phan as 'Uncle’ has a lock on this year’s AFI Supporting Actor award – he is superb.

There have been a few films at this year’s Sydney Film Festival that deserve the opportunity to mix it with the big boys in general release. Khao Do’s Mother Fish is one of them. Do’s exquisitely-effortless skill as a storyteller ensures the politically-volatile nature of his story never overrides the pure humanity he captures in his characters. He has made a film about the refugee experience that is palatable to the masses and yet deeply honourable to those that have inspired him, that have endured in their search for freedom.

Further reading:

Read an interview with Mother Fish producer/distributor: John L Simpson here
Find Mother Fish screening dates here
Visit SBS refugee project How Far We've Come