Chinese producer-turned-director Wang Xuebo's feature debut revolves around a man's struggle to keep his beloved bull from being used as sacrifice for his dead wife's funeral rites.
Boasting melancholic visions of western China and remarkably evocative performances from an entirely non-professional cast, Knife in the Clear Water is an incredibly heartfelt and beautifully tragic portrayal of a patriarch's unspoken bond with his bull.
Having landed in Busan's New Currents section, first-time director Wang Xuebo – whose previous credits include producing Pema Tseden's acclaimed Tharlo - is perhaps now ready to switch over to the director's chair full-time. Counting Pema Tseden as well as Hong Kong helmer Derek Yee and Chinese director Zhang Meng as executive producers, Knife in the Clear Water will definitely cut its way through the festival circuit. Its next stop is in the Vancouver festival's Young Cinema competition.
Wang's audacious vision is apparent from the very start, as the film unspools in the boxed-in 4:3 ratio. Defying the more common practice of screening windswept rural landscapes in the widest proportions possible, Wang is perhaps making a statement that Knife is no mere exploitation of exotic geographical and cultural vistas. Based on Shi Shuqing's novel, this film is first and foremost a portrait of a man and his humanity – a character in his twilight years struggling with the death of his wife and then his best animal friend.
The head of a family in the far-flung, challenging plateaus of China's Ningxia Autonomous Region, Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) has barely recovered from losing his spouse before his son (Yang Shengcang, unrelated) talks to him about the need to kill the family bull to feed the guests attending the "purification" ceremony making the 40th day of his mother's death.
Knowing he couldn't say no given the family's limited resources, Ma doesn't exactly say yes either – and just as he resigns himself to his fate, the already thin and ailing bull seemingly does the same by refusing to eat, adding to Ma's pain. Departing from common depictions of rural patriarchs as reactionary tyrants, the protagonist here is the odd sentimentalist quite different from his more pragmatic kin: his grandson, for example, is already talking about which part of the animal he looks forward to eating.
Cold, for sure, but think of the extreme circumstances these folks have to endure. In what amounts nearly to ethnography, Wang shows the family struggling to sustain itself by securing basic things like water, grass and even soft earth (for the bull's pen).
All of which only makes Ma's feelings that more lyrical and moving. Yang's performance is staggeringly authentic, and even the stoniest cynic will be moved by the film's emotional finale, in which Ma prepares for the parting of his bull with a hushed recital of the Koran and a final walk in the mountains with the animal. Wang Weihua's camerawork captures the harsh realities faced by Ma and his family, and provides the actors a great platform against which they can unleash their silent, suppressed emotional maelstroms.