Chinese Reality #20: Oxhide II

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Oxhide II (dir. Liu Jiayin)

Oxhide II (dir. Liu Jiayin)

Niu pi er (Oxhide II)

2009. China. Directed by Liu Jiayin.

MoMA program description:

In 2005, a 25-year-old Beijing film student issued her startling debut film, Oxhide, a stylized feature film starring her parents as themselves, shot entirely in their tiny apartment. Her self-sufficient follow-up,Oxhide II, takes her highly formalized approach to everyday life even further, depicting her family’s preparation of a dumpling dinner in real time, set across nine distinctly positioned shots around a multi-purpose table. A work of great precision and intimacy, Liu’s film probes deep into deceptively banal surfaces to reveal the sublime mysteries of a Chinese family.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

I had to think, almost with pity, of all those US indie filmmakers who believe they have to cultivate CGI and slacker acting, to seduce investors and strain for outrageous sex and edgy violence. Liu made this no-budget, low-key masterpiece over years in a single room, and with her parents. That’s a new definition of cool.

David Bordwell

Video Essay on Oxhide II, dir. Liu Jiayin (script by David Bordwell) from Kevin B. Lee on Vimeo.

I continue to subtract.
You can put a lot into a film and think you still have a film.
But what you have is no longer a film.
I want to wring the sponge dry.
Jogging is jogging, not track and field.
A film is a film, not acrobatics.
I am focused on what a film can do without; that is want to get rid of.
I don’t want to add; I want to subtract.
I want to get back to basics and build my clumsy movie with my clumsy
hands.

Liu Jiayin, director statement

Pushing the shared formal preoccupations of the minimalist-realist mode in contemporary film practice as far as any works of the last ten years, Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide (Niu Pi, 2005) and Oxhide II (Niu Pi Er, 2009) occupy an unassailable position on the leading edge of latter-day international art cinema. As incarnations of no-budget, independent DV filmmaking, they establish both aesthetic and logistical strategies for the production of an artistically laudable self-made cinema. That is, Liu has made a set of films that engage deeply with the cinematic art of her precise historical moment, while also offering a template for the creation of comparably viable work under the most profound of restrictions.

Michael J. Anderson, Tativille

Using video and long lenses, the material subject of Oxhide II is less emphasized than the flat gestalt of the experience of cooking with Liu’s family, as indeed it is her mother, father, and the filmmaker herself who star as the dumpling makers and eaters.  The overall effect of the ingredients, their mixing, and the dinner table talk (which is more instructive than conversational) express character not through plot or dramatic dialog—the dramatic undercurrent of the video is maintained by rare dolops of discussion about the family’s failing business—but through the sum total of gestures over time.  We get acquainted with the barely dramatized family almost entirely through watching how each family member cooks (or in Liu’s inexperienced case, tries to).  Faces are rare in the film, and so we take what we can get, which is a surprising amount, from the simple actions of kneading the dough, the filling of dumplings.

Daniel Kasman, Mubi Notebook

These are the details of life that I think are interesting but that are often overlooked, especially within films, so I make a special effort to film them. Usually in films, if people are cooking or eating dinner, it’s never to show that people cook or eat dinner. It’s only ever used as a backdrop in which to show or say something else. So for example during dinner two people have a fight; or somebody announces they’re pregnant; or somebody announces they’re having an affair. And cooking scenes are often used to express that a couple are happy together; or to say something about a family; or the relationship between two people. These scenes are hardly ever about the cooking or eating.

I think these daily routines are interesting in themselves. I don’t have to add anything else to these moments in order to make them interesting to me. I don’t think you need somebody to catch fire, or for somebody to die, to make them worthy of observing.

Liu Jiayin, interviewed by Christen Cornell, Artspace China

Who was this filmmaker who so maturely delineated the space of her imagination, carving a humanist monument from next to nothing? Even without the surprise factor that helped make Oxhide a festival cause célèbre, the more technically accomplishedOxhide II proves that Liu’s arte povera aesthetic is capable of a seemingly infinite number of variations. Featuring the same ensemble of characters in the same cramped apartment, now dealing with the stresses and encroachment of the Beijing Olympics and the imminent demise of their shop, Oxhide II ascribes to a conceptual pattern based on space rather than time.

Andrea Picard, Cinema Scope

While Bumming in Beijing is doubtful as to whether a female vagabond can be successful, it seems to be accepted fact inOxhide II that she cannot: the domestic has become the setting for art. The family table becomes the platform for the coming together of differing people through creative labour. As the single focus of the latter film’s nine shots, it is the only space in which the family members stop arguing with each other and instead communally make bags, dumplings and ultimately the film itself. The table, with its weathered and scratched surface, is where the identity of the makers has always become plastic, even when the world outside seeks only to limit them. The inspiring portrayal of art in both films suggests it has the potential to turn the maker into a gender-neutral figure who is open to different identities, whether sexual, racial or class-based.

– M. Lý-Eliot, The f-word, October 16 2012

I had thought that the fundamental element that would allow me to continue the Oxhide series was my parents’ old apartment, but I don’t think that way anymore. The soul of Oxhide is a family, a father, a mother and a daughter, and the relationship among them. As long as my family is around, Oxhide will continue. It might be in the apartment, but we might go outside. We might go to a park. As long as we are there, no matter where we are, it’s all OxhideOxhide is not my only subject, but it is a subject that will go on because life will go on.

– Liu Jiayindirector statement

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