I’ve recently seen two significant films from Asia, Ming Nguyen-Vo’s Buffalo Boy (Vietnam, 2004) and Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide (China, 2005). While their details differ, similarities abound: both films are feature debuts by their respective filmmakers; both explore the impact of family trades (involving cattle) on the individuals that comprise them; and both are set in specific locales recorded in striking, elliptical ways. And both are available on DVD–Buffalo Boy was released in North America a few weeks ago; Oxhide should be out (with English subtitles?) from MK2′s CinÈma DÈcouverte in France, but it looks as if it might’ve been delayed.
Vietnamese American and UCLA film grad (and physics scholar) Nguyen-Vo crafts a visually sublime account of peasant life in French Indochina shortly before World War II. Shot by cinematographer Yves Cape (Dumont’s L’HumanitÈ), the film is set in and out of the vast flooded plains of Southern Vietnam during the rainy season. A teenager name Kim and his elderly parents scrape by financially from tilling a modest patch of land with their two buffalo, but when the waters submerge everything in sight, Kim has to transport the beasts to higher ground to feed them. He joins a tough band of herdsmen who sporadically clash with rival gangs, and in the process he’s introduced to the male rituals and family secrets that have existed for generations.
That’s not to say that Buffalo Boy is merely the latest example of what used to be called the “peasant epic”; it’s a genuinely poetic and complex film made for a pittance (internationally co-produced for less than $1 million) in remote locales, using extant housing and mostly non-professional actors. Its images are virtually primal: an inhospitable water world filled with the detritus of life, swimming herds of cattle (seen from above and below the water), frail huts creaking in storms, and enigmatic characters struggling to survive. In a lesser film, the copious floods would signal pat themes of life and renewal, but Nguyen-Vo (inspired by Vietnamese writer Nam Son’s short stories) emphasizes the water’s destructive power as well, and the profound inconvenience and unpredictability it imposes upon rural life. Submerged grasslands rot and decay, the buffalo–and subsequently their owners–might genuinely starve, and there isn’t even dry land to bury the dead.
During the herding scenes, the male rites of professionalism, and group loyalty and competition surprising recall Westerns like Red River despite the film’s diametrically opposed setting. Kim’s search for identity and integrity would fit easily within the Hawksian universe, though the threat to masculinity here is the French authorities rather than a strong and intelligent female (although they dot Nguyen-Vo’s landscape as well, navigating the male currents with resourceful independence).
Nguyen-Vo constructs his plot piecemeal-style, highlighting small moments and transitions rather than big events, allowing the viewer to speculate and explore connections. A battle between two gangs is set up, but the film cuts to a private conversation between the leaders, and a subsequent cut reveals the gangs’ separation. Characters appear and disappear without fanfare, and references to time always come as a surprise as the narrative shifts and redirects itself like the precarious waters of its setting and TÙn-Th‚t TiÍt‘s halting, lyrical score.
What permeates the film, however, rises to the surface over time–an affirmation of family through interconnected lives. An aged, childless couple assists a stranded orphan, a young man buries a stranger, and the itinerant herdsmen both spawn and adopt children despite their erratic lifestyles. With stoic sensitivity to the cycles of life and death, dry season and wet season, responsibilities and freedoms, characters in Buffalo Boy shoulder one other’s burdens as a form of collective survival.
The cast and crew of Oxhide.
23-year-old Liu Jiayin’s film–shot in widescreen DV within the confines of her small Beijing apartment and starring herself and her parents–is comprised of twenty three static, one-scene shots, often obtusely composed and dimly lit. It is a narrative film, presenting a family in various stages of discussing their failing leather bag business, but the family dynamics are so well observed that their interactions reveal much deeper concerns of professionalism, self-respect, modernization, and existential fears in a changing world.
Liu is still a student at the Beijing Film Academy, and appearing at the REDCAT recently she told us she shot for 40 nights with her parents and herself as the sole cast and crew. But the film is not a documentary; it’s meant to evoke the feelings of living in a cramped apartment facing the anxieties of the age. (“For my parents, the whole shooting was akin to uncovering a scar,” Liu has written. “Through the lens I saw our life–even though I couldnít describe it.”)
The father is a prideful man who worries about the implications of reducing his prices almost as much as he worries about his daughter’s stunted height; he seemingly overcompensates by demanding correct methods of stirring traditional sauces or agonizing over the details of a sales flyer. The mother concentrates on her cooking and cleaning, but offers sharp advice about the business in no uncertain terms. The daughter demands her own individuation, a feat that poses genuine difficulties in so small a space and focused a family.
In nearly every scene, the family quarrels, yet a gradual sense of loyalty and kinship emerges, particularly in a scene when the mother and daughter model the father’s latest style bags. The tension momentarily lifts as the father delights in his creations and his wife and daughter play act imagined customer types. It’s the scene in which they seem the most relaxed–although touches of gentle humor and irony appear frequently in the film–forgetting their tasks and resources and simply enjoying one another’s observations.
Oxhide is a unique and memorable film. In its rigorous formalism, it offers an emotionally resonant portrait of a modern Chinese family. And just as the viewer must imagine and construct a larger locale through the offscreen sounds and claustrophobic spaces linked in the film, Oxhide stands as a microcosmic film amid a highly active film industry; a small, independent student production that nevertheless provides a remarkable example of China’s cinematic potential.