Short Film Review: Men without Women Looking for BananaFish, Girl Without Cat Telling Her Story (2016)

It’s a rather absurd opening. A man speaks to a dead fish in a cage. He offers it water and a banana. He talks about his breakup. But look a little carefully: in this shot, it’s him who looks caged within the strict architectural lines of the cage.


If the film’s title is a mouthful, it’s a perfect fit for the meandering expansiveness contained in just twenty minutes. Men Without Women Looking for BananaFish, Girl Without Cat Telling Her Story (2016) by Malaysian filmmaker Cheng Thim Kian follows the paths of three individuals across vast geographical spaces: a Girl, a Man, and a Stalker in Kyoto. After 105 days and 12 hours, following the Girl and the Man’s breakup, the Girl has gone to Kyoto to, as the synopsis says, ‘look for the past memory of a Thai admirer’ while looking for a cat. Meanwhile, the Man has gone to a place that reminds him of their relationship. Their narrated, allusory stories interweave into a dizzying mélange of intertwining fates, yet all remain entrapped in their own fears and hesitations. 


At least, that’s what I glean from it. The film is so replete with symbols and narratives that it’s hard to keep track. The Stalker from Kyoto speaks of a woman and a man, despite being One Hundred Percent Perfect for each other, afraid to open up to each other. The Girl speaks of travelling to a New City with a lighthouse; the Man encounters a bridge with a fisherman, who claims it’s a good time for bananafish. All of this is accompanied by some frankly gorgeous images. Cheng’s camera captures beautiful compositions; the Girl, sitting alone on the rigid and gritty lines of a playground comes to mind. Or the fields that extend into a vanishing point. Geishas sitting behind wooden bars, observing the street carefully. 



But where the film loses me is precisely its complex, interweaving nature. If we’d stretch it, there could be something to be said about the instability of the itinerant and the distinct feeling of loneliness in the lone pursuit of something past. Clearly, any contemplation on the meaning of the (many) symbols mentioned above is going to take a viewer multiple replays and analysis. But where’s the fun in that? It seems to be Cheng’s intention to obscure to evoke a sense of mood and atmosphere, rather than a coherent concept or narrative. And pardon this outlandish possible reference, but there’s something of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name in the simple yet evocative piano solos that accompany moments of poignance, and in the notion of opening up to another. 


The result is a film that does read as sincere, rather than a pretentious attempt at postmodernism. It ends wonderfully – there is no moment of outright reconciliation, no visceral moment of reconnection. But here, the Man and Girl’s parallel narratives finally intersect where they seem able to address each other, across spatial and temporal boundaries. Still, it needed re-watching a few times to finally warm up to it. And in spite of everything I can’t help but think: Wow, the director must have really felt smart after making this film.  


Review by Ethan Kan

Men Without Women Looking for BananaFish, Girl Without Cat Telling Her Story screened in the AFiS Special programme of the Busan International Short Film Festival in April 2021.

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