This short review will open with two things I dislike about Year of the Fish and conclude with a positive word about one of the actors in the picture. Also, the review will use the word "capitalism" only once but will use the word "exploitation" at least twice. Lastly, the review will not offer a judgment on these aspects: directing, editing, and the script, all of which were done by David Kaplan.
With that out of the way, let's begin with the beginning: There are two ways to deal with this type of story, a real-world story—a story about the exploitation of a young Chinese teenager who enters the U.S. illegally and is forced to work in a "massage parlor" to pay off her debts. This story can be handled directly or indirectly. And a direct handling is always stronger than an indirect one. In Year of the Fish, for example, seeing the exploitation of the teenager (An Nguyen) indirectly (through the thick and colorful lens of a fairy tale—the Chinese version of the Cinderella story) distorts the reality to such an extent that the serious elements (sex slavery, sweatshops, urban loneliness) cannot be taken seriously. What one wants to see instead is an unforgiving, unremitting, and undistorted indictment of global capitalism—a monster that makes life impossible for billions of people every day. The other problem with the film is it should have been in Chinese and not in an English broken by Chinese speakers/actors. The broken English further separates the story from reality.
Now, if the fairy-tale lens were removed and the English converted to Chinese, we would better see and hear the best part of this film, Tsai Chin's performance as the massage parlor's madam. At one point in the film, the madam confronts the teenager, who is trying to flee the seedy parlor, with sobering words that should have been said in sober Chinese: "All that old Chinese dignity stuff doesn't mean anything anymore... Right now, you think money is not important enough to give up dignity, but trust me sweetheart, in America, without money there is no dignity." No diggity, madam.