Oxhide II

By Andréa Picard

In praise of pockets—perhaps this is the essence of Liu Jiayin’s cinema to date. Like the handbags and dumplings whose real-time creation in her quietly astonishing diptych (soon to be a trilogy) of Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009) provide the films with their structuring principles, Liu’s wit, originality, and ingenious deployment of time and space masterfully demonstrate how the handmade and artisanal can exemplify a rare beauty of form. Created using a cheap digital camera for which Liu handcrafted a widescreen frame, Oxhide is a fragmentary family frieze told in 23 static, unorthodoxly cropped shots (one for each year of Liu’s life), in which the precocious filmmaker, her parents, and the family cat enact lightly fictionalized versions of themselves in a tightly delimited domestic space, centred around the table on which Liu’s Keatonesque father makes the handbags that are the lifeblood of the family’s failing business. Constructed around a series of still-life compositions (paper patterns, a sewing machine, a metal work lamp, smooth pieces of oxhide) and a cunning foregrounding of the performative gestures of everyday life, Oxhide plays out the Lius’ muted family drama via seemingly banal conversation, pregnant silences, and an inventive use of off-screen space—a subtle, powerful accumulation of minutiae transpiring before the background of a contemporary China in flux.

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 accomplished Oxhide 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. As that same work table is cleared of equipment and transformed into the arena for a family dumpling-making competition (the dramatic dough-snapping contributing significantly to the film’s strictly diegetic soundtrack), Oxhide II consists of nine shots cut on 45-degree angles that work their way clockwise around the table as Liu and her parents chop chives, knead, form, and fill their pockets of dough. As the family’s endearing domestic dynamics take shape during this real-time slow food demonstration, the richness of Liu’s recipe comes to light. While her dumplings may be a bit misshaped, Liu’s films evince a carefully calibrated yet warmly sensual sound and image construction, a droll humanism, and, ultimately, a feisty hopefulness that mark them as extraordinarily valuable in a world that purports to be incapable of taking its time.

Tagged with →  

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope 80 Table of Contents

    Interviews  No God But the Unknown Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden by Jordan Cronk I See a Darkness: Pedro Costa on Vitalina More →

  • No God But the Unknown: Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden

    By Jordan Cronk “Of course it was beautiful; but there was something more than beauty in it, something more stingingly splendid which had made beauty More →

  • I See a Darkness: Pedro Costa on Vitalina Varela

    A moving study of mourning and memory, Pedro Costa’s revelatory new film offers an indelible portrait of Vitalina Taveres Varela, a fragile yet indomitable woman who makes the long voyage from Cape Verde to Lisbon to attend her estranged husband’s funeral, but misses the event itself because of cruel bureaucratic delays. More →

  • Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft

    The prospect of spending an hour and a half with people lacking in notable virtue, alluring vice, or any apparent interest, may seem like an unproductive exercise in forced empathy—but consider this skepticism a function, as opposed to a fault, of these tightly orchestrated, seemingly soporific character studies. More →

  • For a Cinema of Bombardment

    Although there have always been intrepid critics and cinephiles who have engaged with films belonging to the non-narrative avant-garde, there has existed a perception that such films, operating as they do on somewhat different aesthetic precepts, could be considered a separate cinematic realm, one that even the most dutiful critic could engage with or not, as he or she saw fit. More →