Dir: Jiavin Liu
The most important Chinese film of the past several years—and one of the most astonishing recent films from any country—doesn’t come from the so-called Sixth Generation, formerly underground Chinese rebel directors whose output has fed Western film festivals regularly since the early 90s (e.g., Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Zhang Yuan). Nor does it come from the newly anointed masters of the Fifth Generation, whose leaders, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, are busying themselves these days crafting media content, cinema morphed into blockbuster-ready marketing opportunities. The film is called Oxhide (a literal, though pleasantly strange direct translation of the Chinese title Niupi ), and it comes from young female first-time director Liu Jiayin.
Liu is a 23 year old Beijinger currently enrolled in the Masters program of the literature (i.e., screenwriting) department of the Beijing Film Academy . Oxhide is notionally underground: it was produced outside of the system, which means that the director made it by herself, and isn’t interested in submitting her film to the Film Bureau for its approval (which doesn’t much matter: they ignore her, she ignores them). After premiering in Berlin, Oxhide is making the rounds of foreign festivals, where it has already won a clutch of top prizes (including Vancouver’s Dragons and Tigers Award, the Jeonju JJ Star Award, the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Golden DV Award), and has been shown in China at at least one semi-private Beijing screening.
Oxhide stands out from the multitudes of digital films that bubble up every month from the astonishingly fertile cultural well of present-day Beijing due to its ambition, its pure nerviness, and the extent to which it has achieved the outsize goals it sets for itself. Liu’s subject is her immediate family: the film is about a father, mother, and daughter, played by her father, her mother, and herself (there’s also a cat who pops up once in a while). It is shot entirely in their tiny apartment near the main train line in southern Beijing . The parents design and manufacture leather purses and bags, but their business seems to be failing. The daughter is very short and isn’t growing, a source of great concern and disappointment to her father. The family makes purses, prepares food, eats, squabbles, and sleeps, all in a warren of tiny, cramped spaces that they occupy so fully there’s barely enough room for the air that they need to breath.
So far, so minimal. Liu’s formal choices are absolutely clear and unvaried. The film is in 23 scenes, each scene shot in one continuous take from a stationary camera. The shortest shot is just under two minutes; the longest is a Jeanne Dielman-like dinner preparation. Its format is widescreen DV, Liu using the frame to capture what looks at first like merely the middle slice of each scene: often all we can see are torsos, hands, the top of a table, or the bottom of a couple of heads. This aesthetic choice is partly dictated by the extremely cramped space she lives in, one that’s typical for working-class Beijingers still housed in the un-modernized parts of the city centre. ‘Scope framing accentuates this sense of extremely tight focus, of a scene that is made only partially visible. We only get pieces, and have to infer the rest from visual and aural clues. Within these constraints, Liu knows how to design the frame so that it sings. Each setup is precisely arranged, with an astonishingly well-developed sense of balance and, in scenes with action, a beautifully clear choreography of movement in counterpoint.
Liu’s precise control of offscreen sound and space keeps the film intelligible: even if the beginning of a scene is difficult to decipher, we eventually hear and see enough to know what’s important. One characteristic example: the second scene opens with a view down to a desktop. A bit of a machine is in the upper right, and we hear voices apparently discussing Chinese calligraphy. Finally, the conversation resolves into the father instructing his daughter about formatting a text; she types in response to each of his suggestions; and after about six minutes, the visual punch line: the machine in the upper right starts to sputter, and coloured pages emerge. It’s a printer, and we can almost make out the content of the shop signs she’s printing for her father: “50% off sale.” While the signs are printing, Liu uses the time and extra screen space to run her brief credits, naming herself as the film’s screenwriter, cinematographer, and director.
This scene also exemplifies a principle of Oxhide’s dramatic construction: Liu loves a punch-line. Though she’s chosen a rigorous form, Oxhide is genuinely funny. Out of the stressed, frequently quarrelsome interactions of the family, Liu finds moments of humour, and places them right at the end of most of her chapters. Whether it’s her father’s realization that a pull-up bar he has engineered can’t actually help lengthen his daughter’s lower body, or his insistence that a truly correct sesame paste can be made only by stirring the glop clockwise, many of the chapters play as comedy.
Though Liu insists the film is carefully scripted, the relentlessly close, absolutely still camera catches the family in what feel like documentary-style moments of self-revelation. Chapters that end in abrupt flares of minor violence are as frequent as punch lines. We learn that much of the stress is economic: the family is getting poorer—they used to have a car and a larger apartment—and now there seem to be a monthly struggle to meet the rent. The film’s central crisis, a moral as well as a financial one, is precipitated by the act of printing those “sale” signs. Customers, the father complains, demand discounts, but for him discounting his goods is akin to denigrating the value of his labour and skill. It’s a question of dignity, his definition of his worth as a person. Liu characteristically converts her father’s unbearable sense of humiliation into a moment of humour when he apologizes to the long-expired cow whose skin he’s working with for failing to do justice to said cow’s sacrifice.
The father emerges as something of a tragic figure by the final chapters: a generous sensibility ground down by a society that no longer has space for his art. Liu Jiayin’s accomplishment here is to give the viewers a feeling that they are discovering a new way of looking, coming into being right before their eyes. Her film’s gaze shows us what we couldn’t see otherwise: people rich with potential who can’t grow, precisely because the spaces that they inhabit are too small for them. Oxhide sections and distorts the outsized figure of the father, recapturing him in claustrophobic framings that can’t contain the grandeur of his wounded dignity. At the same time, it gently mocks the figure of the daughter, who seems to submit to such a limited space and refuses to grow.
Liu’s restrictive apparatus is paradoxically liberating. We feel these characters vibrating outside of the frame: their existence—and Liu has surely made a film communicating an existential urgency—is made palpable by our experience of seeing them partial, and inferring the rest. The film not only affirms its characters’ vitality, it also calls an activated, participatory viewer into being by exercising our creativity as well. O ne of the last lines the father has—“I have a lot of things waiting to be fulfilled”—is followed by his plaintive calling out, in the dark, to his wife and daughter, who don’t answer. But the palpable vitality with which the film imbues its family assures us that they are anything but defeated. With films as confidently and stunningly radical as Oxhide, Chinese cinema’s future looks no less bright.
Oxhide II (2009)
Just as in her previous film, Oxhide, the Chinese director films herself and her parents in their rather claustrophobic apartment with documentary realism. She uses nine fixed camera positions, with which she turns clockwise around the kitchen table (so that the last shot has exactly the same perspective as the first). The shots, from 5 to 20 minutes long, were made from close by, so that the three family members largely remain off-screen. The resulting rigorously minimalist story passes in real time: Oxhide II is as long as it takes to clear a worktable, to prepare Chinese dumplings on it and to eat them. While the meal is being prepared, the three talk occasionally about the problems surrounding their bag shop, with the wife and daughter having a serious word with the father. However, as long as they talk about making dumplings, the family is united.