In 2011, Béla Tarr presented his last feature film, The Turin Horse. The film, in which he had stripped everything bare, contains a lot of iconic images. There is the daughter sitting in front of the window, looking out into the desolate world outside the house. There is the potato on a plate, the only meal they can afford. But there is also the horse, who opens the film as seemingly one of three main characters, but who, to me, becomes the most important character in the film, even though you don’t see much of it, in fact. The horse is the key to survival for Tarr’s characters, but in a world which seems to become more apocalyptic by the hour, even the horse is no longer a guarantee. It refuses to eat, it refuses to drink, it refuses to budge.
It is difficult to ignore the similarity. It is difficult to neglect the universality of Tarr’s story, which, I believe, many have considered to be a fictional construct. Which it was, of course. At the same time, there was something in there that didn’t speak of one father and his daughter, and their struggle to survive. It spoke of something that united millions of people, regardless of where they live. It was a human story.
I was trying to think of a more human story than Xuebo Wang’s Knife in the Clear Water (2016). I couldn’t help but go through all the other films I had seen up until yesterday. There is Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang, which I loved a lot, as uncomfortable and as provocative as it was. But Knife is something else entirely. Set in the Nangxia region amongst a family of Huis, it is a film about loss and poverty. Not everything is right there on the surface. And surface is one particular element, which I’d like to take a look at in more detail here. I uploaded a draft of a paper not so long ago, which I never submitted anywhere and which was still very much in its infancy, and invited you to think about the connection between Tarr’s representation of landscape and the director’s characters. In Damnation, it all becomes one. There is no difference between the characters’ environment and the characters themselves. They are one.
Nangxia feels like a moon landscape. It feels like a landscape not from this place. It feels otherworldly, cold, unwelcoming. Xuebo Wang’s camera not only captures the desolate, empty landscape, but also the feeling of desolation and emptiness. There is something special about each landscape shot in the film. Nothing seems to grow there. Mountains tower in the background. The earth seems dry, without nutrition, in need for life-giving rain. The work in the (potato) fields is difficult, back-breaking and rudimentary for men and women alike. And it is in one of those desolate fields that Ma Zishan’s wife dies. There is a cleansing ritual, performed by men only. The burial, the grave – they are simple. A long procession of men cross the landscape, carrying the body of Ma Zishan’s wife to the grave site. This simplicity, which really blends in with the simplicity of the environment, is only one part of the story, though.
Xuebo Wang’s film is about a cow bull. It is he who is the centre of the film. It is he from whom all social relations in the film radiate. It is he who guarantees the survival of the family. Ma Zishan is perhaps in his early sixties, perhaps older. It is difficult to guess. Life in the mountains and hard work have left their marks. His son works in the city. He is part of the large group of migrants in China who leave behind their families in the villages in order to earn a bit of money in the cities. “Life is easier in the city,” the son says when his father asks him to return to the village for good. But money remains scarce, even if he earns more than if he was to stay in the village.
Forty days after the death of a person, a ritual feast must be performed. An animal is sacrificed and a feast prepared. Financially, this is extremely difficult to stem for the people high up in the mountains. Ma Zishan’s son expects an expense of 500 yuan (approximately 63€), which is a fortune for them. They cannot afford to buy an animal for the sacrifice. The only option is to sacrifice the bull. The bull who had been a lifelong companion, who had helped plow the land, who became a guarantee for the family to be able to earn a little bit of money through their harvest. The thought of sacrificing the animal is not only a thought of losing a means (perhaps the only means) of income. It goes deeper than this. There is a sense that with the sacrifice of the bull, everything else will die. Ma Zishan becomes aware of his own age, his own fragility, his own end. One cannot help but seeing the bull and the old man as one.
One night, Ma Zishan’s brother shows up on the doorstep. He knows that his sister-in-law has just died. He knows that an expensive feast must be prepared. He knows that the family lives in poverty. How to break the question? How to ask his brother for rice, for something to eat, a request which would inevitably mean that his brother’s family had less to eat? And yet, there is this rich family member, who wouldn’t even give him a slice of bread, he says. There is no one else to ask. His wife is nine-months pregnant. He cannot provide for the family. He is emasculated, dependent, not a worthy man, a breadwinner.
In the meantime, the bull stops eating and drinking. He saw the knife in the clear water. He can sense his fate, he knows that his days are now counted, knows that he will be sacrificed. Primal intuition, primal behaviour. It is then that the old man realises the full effect of his decision to sacrifice the one work animal he has left. The bull has seen the knife in the water. The old man has, too. For himself. For everything he has spent his life growing and forging. For everything he tried to make out of the desolate, hostile world that was his.
Knife in the Clear Water is once again a reminder just how strong independent Chinese filmmakers are in their Slow Cinema output. There is an astonishing pool of talent that I wished was more visible. I also wished I had the time to write more about Chinese Slow Cinema. Maybe, this could become a project on the side…