Cinderella didn't know how good she had it. Scrubbing floors in a fancy castle with the help of cheerful singing mice — Chinese immigrant Ye Xian (Nguyen) should be so lucky. She's been lured to New York with promises of a job in a beauty parlor owned by her father’s cousin Mrs. Su (Chin), but upon arrival, Ye Xian discovers Mrs. Su's parlor offers not perms or manicures but massages of the full-body variety. She's appalled, but Su's already collected Ye Xian's passport and forced her to sign a contract promising to pay off the expenses incurred bringing her over. In America, Su informs her new employee, the old Chinese ideals of dignity don't matter. In America, she says, there can be no dignity without money.
Two of the girls in the parlor attempt to train Ye Xian, offering helpful advice like using Handiwipes to remove the "protein stains" from her clothing, and commenting of one client, "He's got an ass like cottage cheese, but he's a big tipper." She's appalled, of course, and refuses the job, so she's forced instead to do the parlor's "dirty work": cooking, cleaning, and scrubbing toilets. Though none of these tasks seem as bad as servicing the creepy clients who frequent the parlor, Ye Xian is miserable and alone. Her only companion is a goldfish given to her for good luck by a cartoonish fortuneteller in the China Town market.
Year of the Fish's main attraction is its unique visual style, meant to mimic the look of a storybook. While the film is frequently stunning, turning live actors into moving impressionistic watercolors, frames occasionally appear smudged or pixelated as if they were created with an inexpertly applied PhotoShop filter.
And no amount of soft-focus rotoscoping can beautify the ugliness of the film's characters. There's no Disney-fication of Ye Xian's life as a captive in the parlor, as Year of the Fish revives the nihilistic cruelty and moral ambiguity of the original Grimm fairy tales. Ye Xian's Prince Charming, Johnny Pan (Leung), is a struggling accordion player, only marginally in a better position than Xian herself, and his prospects of rescuing her are doubtful. Her fairy godmother figure, blind fortuneteller Auntie Yaga (Kim), is a vicious and repulsive sweatshop owner. And though "ugly stepsister" character Katty (Corrine Hong Wu) plays against the archetype by making limited attempts at protecting Ye Xian from Su's wrath, Katty ultimately suffers more because for her small kindness. The senseless brutality of Xian's situation eventually becomes so overwhelming the film is stripped, maybe deliberately, of most of its magic, storybook visual effects notwithstanding. Even the titular fish is of little help, offering no songs of encouragement or anthropomorphic companionship, but only floating around in its bowl growing fat while Ye Xian's situation becomes so helpless that even the viewer begins to wonder if her faith is unfounded and naive, and whether the evil caricature Mrs. Su is right when she says "Fish are for eating. They are not our secret friends." Maybe the only true happy endings to be had come at 50 bucks a pop.