Heartfall Arises (惊天破 / 驚心破, Ken Wu Pinru, 2016)

Sean Lau Ching-wan and Nicholas Tse are together again after being denied the opportunity to reteam for a sequel to the acclaimed The Bullet Vanishes but if Heartfall Arises (Mainland China – 惊天破  / HK – 驚心破) was intended to repeat the successful buddy cop pulp of Bullet it sadly fails. A very modern tale of chess playing genius detectives, Heartfall Arises tantalises with some bizarre B-movie antics but remains intent on becoming this year’s big arthouse leaning crime thriller. Unfortunately Wu’s highly stylised approach, though often impressive, only serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in the film’s construction.

Taking the lead this time, Tse plays snappy dresser and maverick cop John Ma who, when we first meet him, is busy giving a chess lesson to a little boy on a park bench while the rest of the Hong Kong police department is hot on the trail of a serial killer, The General (Gao Weiguang), who’s been targeting “evil” corporate big wigs. Ma wades in to save the day but, tragically, he and the killer are caught in a face-off in which both fire their guns at the same time with Ma securing a headshot only to be shot in the heart. Luckily Ma is saved by medical science thanks to a heart transplant from, you guessed it, The General.

Whilst in the hospital Ma meets police psychoanalyst, Calvin Che (Sean Lau Ching-wan), who (besides being another chess expert) has a theory about cell memory and the possibility that personality traits can be inherited through organ transplant. Ma has been relegated to desk work since returning to the police force but gets a chance to return to active duty when a spate of incidents occur eerily mimicking The General’s crime spree. Could his new heart really help them catch a killer, or will Ma too find himself crossing the line from law enforcement to vigilante avenger?

Though the personality transplant logic sets us up for a series of silly B-movie shenanigans, the idea is never treated with anything less than total seriousness. Thus when Ma realises that he suddenly likes spicy food we’re supposed to be worried – doubly so when he starts having visions of a pretty girl he doesn’t know frolicking on a romantic beach, especially as his nice doctor girlfriend has already gone out of her way to tell us she doesn’t mind very much about Ma’s new tastebuds. Figuring out the girl becomes key but, it seems, Ma is incorruptible when it comes to love making this particular drama ally a dead end.

Drama is where Heartfall Arises truly flatlines. Despite having played such a large part in the success of The Bullet Vanishes, Tse and Lau never generate the same kind of chemistry which made their previous collaboration so enjoyable. Both characters are hugely underwritten with Tse bundled into expensive looking fashionable outfits proving a mismatch with his cerebral policeman persona whereas Lau sports a scrabbly chin beard more in keeping with a hipster hacker than an uptight shrink. The cardinal sin is that Heartfall Arises actually pinches one of its central twists from The Bullet Vanishes but does it so clumsily as to completely undermine everything which has gone before.

Heartfall Arises wouldn’t be the first Hong Kong thriller to get away with a nonsensical plot but its relentless pretentiousness robs it of the possibility of escaping rigour through style. Slickly shot, Wu aims for a swanky, upscale noir from the well appointed office blocks to fancy apartments and Ma’s strangely dapper attire but the elite cops vibe remains decidedly low stakes as Ma and Che swap philosophical quotes and talk chess until the potentially explosive finale. A buggy chase in Thailand proves particularly unexciting as Wu fails to make the action scenes compensate for the weakness of the plot, and though he has some intriguing visual ideas they’re often ones which don’t serve the film. Taking itself far too seriously, Heartfall Arises would be more fun if it allowed itself to revel in the ridiculousness of its premise but becomes far too caught up looking at itself in the mirror to notice that the villain has escaped by grapple gun and taken the audience’s suspension of disbelief with him.


HK Trailer (English subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, TORICO, 2016)

camelia-girlPicking up on the well entrenched penny dreadful trope of the tragic flower seller the Shoujo Tsubaki or “Camellia Girl” became a stock character in the early Showa era rival of the Kamishibai street theatre movement. Like her European equivalent, the Shoujo Tsubaki was typically a lower class innocent who finds herself first thrown into the degrading profession of selling flowers on the street and then cast down even further by being sold to a travelling freakshow revue. This particular version of the story is best known thanks to the infamous 1984 ero-guro manga by Suehiro Maruo, Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show. Very definitely living up to its name, Maruo’s manga is beautifully drawn evocation of its 1930s counterculture genesis – something which the creator of the book’s anime adaptation took to heart when screening his indie animation. Midori, an indie animation project by Hiroshi Harada, was screened only as part of a wider avant-garde event encompassing a freak show circus and cabaret revue worthy of any ‘30s underground scene.

The 2016 live action adaptation from fashion designer TORICO, Midori: The Camellia Girl (少女椿, Shojo Tsubaki) doesn’t quite take things so far but does its best to put a modern spin on the original work’s decidedly Weimar aesthetic. Fourteen year old Midori (Risa Nakamura) narrates the tale as she suffers at the hands of the freaks and performers who form the community she has become a less than willing member of. After her father ran off and her mother died, Midori’s activities as a seller of paper camellias came to an end when she joined a circus troupe but rather than a warm community of outcasts Midori finds herself amongst a bitchy collection of kinky sex obsessed perverts who force her to become their personal domestic servant. Enduring cruel and frightening behaviour culminating in a rape by a performer with a bandaged face, Midori has begun to consider suicide as her only means of escape but when the circus receives a new employee in the form of “Western” style magician Mr. Wonder (Shunsuke Kazama), Midori’s fortunes begin to brighten.

Thankfully, given some of the things she’s forced to endure, Midori is played by 27 year old model Risa Nakamura in her first film role. The world of the freak show is undoubtedly a hellish one as Midori’s compatriots view her as the company kicking bag. Her biggest problem is the effeminate gay showman, Kanabun (Takeru), who actively enjoys tormenting her even going so far as to kick her pet puppies to death and feed them to her in a stew. This being a fairly incestuous environment, everyone is having sex with everyone else all the time which is not an ideal environment for a dreamy and sheltered fourteen year old. After witnessing a number of strange sexual practices including eyeball licking and an odd ménage à trois, Midori is unceremoniously raped by the bandaged man whose wrappings wind up around her own face. Mr. Wonder is the only one to show her any kind of kindness and perhaps begins to earn her love but his attentions have a possessive and controlling dimension which make this far from an uncomplicated romance even aside from Midori’s relative youth.

TORICO takes a page from Mina Ninagawa’s book in painting her tale in bright, kaleidoscopic colours. Not a naturalistic recreation of early Showa decadence, Midori: The Camelia Girl evokes the spirit of the period with its surreal atmosphere and outlandish costuming. Midori dresses in the bright and innocent clothes of a little girl making her look something like a cartoon heroine though her sunniness contrasts nicely with the sometimes muted dinginess of the street performer world. Accompanied by jaunty, accordion led gypsy jazz, TORICO also makes use of animated sequences and occasional effects to capture the bizarre goings on at the heart of the story and Midori’s frequent retreats into fantasy to escape them. Every bit as strange and surreal as might be hoped, Midori: The Cameila Girl only infrequently allows the encroaching darkness of militarism to penetrate its kitschy world but the threat is ever present as this collection of misfits attempts to survive outside of the mainstream, even if their attempts to do so reject the idea of community in favour of a constant series of betrayals and manipulations.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Yoichi Higashi, 2016)

someones-xylophoneYoichi Higashi has had a long and varied career, deliberately rejecting a particular style or home genre which is one reason he’s never become quite as well known internationally as some of his contemporaries. This slightly anonymous quality serves the veteran director well in his adaptation of Arane Inoue’s novel which takes a long hard look at those living lives of quiet desperation in modern Japan. Though sometimes filled with a strange sense of dread, the world of Someone’s Xylophone (だれかの木琴, Dareka no Mokkin) is a gentle and forgiving one in which people are basically good though driven to the brink by loneliness and disconnection.

Middle aged housewife Sayoko (Takako Tokiwa) has just moved into a new area with her security alarm salesman husband, Kotaro (Masanobu Katsumura), and teenage daughter, Kanna (Mikoto Kimura). By all appearances the home seems to be a happy one, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if ordinary. Even so, stopping into an upscale salon one day Sayoko gets a haircut from the very good looking and warm hearted hairdresser Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu). Hoping for repeat business Kaito gives her a business card and she reciprocates with one of her own so that she can be added to the mailing list. After some awkward chitchat, she leaves but when she gets a typical “thank you for visiting, please come again” text message, Sayoko makes the unusual decision to reply. Not wanting to seem rude, Kaito continues the strange text correspondence but Sayoko’s growing interest in the good looking young man, and later even in his girlfriend, soon crosses the line from harmless fixation to inappropriate obsession, threatening to derail her otherwise “normal” happy family life.

Higashi begins the film with a naturalistic sequence travelling from early morning light to bright sunshine as Kaito takes his bike out for a ride before returning to make breakfast for his still sleeping girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa) – a model/store assistant at the upscale Lolita brand Baby the Stars Shine Bright. Accompanied by a thrumming, modern jazz funk soundtrack, these scenes reflect the film’s baseline reality. Kaito and Yui may live in the real world, to a point at least, whereas Sayoko has her head in the clouds and almost lives there too. A middle aged housewife, her life has begun to lose its purpose now that her daughter is almost grown and needs her much less than she ever has before. Though Sayoko and her husband appear to have a good relationship, she seems to want something more – bored with his caresses and long since past the point where there is nothing left to talk about.

The delivery of a new bed prompts a very particular fantasy of being fondled by both men at the same time though what exactly she wants from Kaito remains unclear. If her original decision to reply to a standard confirmation email could be dismissed as friendly innocence, sending a picture of your new bed to someone you just met is decidedly strange. Nevertheless, Kaito feels the need to keep replying even once it becomes clear that Sayoko has also tracked down his apartment and seems intent on further infiltrating his life. When she takes the decision to visit Yui at her work (the brand is not one which ordinarily caters to women of Sayoko’s age), the younger woman starts to get worried and eventually takes some direct action of her own.

Sayoko remains something of a cypher, a woman who can’t seem to figure herself out. The xylophone of the title refers to a dream or vision she has of a girl in far off window banging away at the instrument but never quite getting the tune – eventually she realises the girl is her, still trying to find her inner rhythm all these years later. Kotaro, by contrast, seems to have more worldly anxieties despite his outwardly calm and kindly manner. When his daughter asks him if they really need the security system they have at home he tells her about a long unsolved family murder before explaining that it just makes him feel safer when he can’t be there in person to protect his wife and daughter. Kanna, a bright child, points out that more threat is posed by accidents in the home than by intruders – to which Kotaro is forced to agree, lamenting that there is no alarm system to prevent a domestic accident. Thus when Kanna calls him to say that there has been an “incident” at home, the metaphor is an apt one – nobody was looking, and now everything’s falling apart.

Despite the expectation for grand scenes or bloody violence, Someone’s Xylophone consistently refuses to follow the signposted direction preferring a more adult resolution born of self reflection and mutual understanding. A subplot involving a very particular young man who comes to the salon solely for female contact hints at a darker path for unresolved loneliness and repressed emotion, but even if Sayoko and Kotaro make ill advised decisions in search of closeness their sojourns in alternate realities ultimately allow them to rediscover their mutual universe (for a time, at least). The xylophone finally plays out a recognisable tune as a more settled Sayoko fantasises about a phantom blanket rather than an illicit ménage à trois but whether this craving for warmth will provoke a similar crisis as the need for passion remains to be seen.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Shuichi Okita, 2016)

mohican-comes-homeJapan may be famous for its family dramas, but there is a significant substrain of these warm and gentle comedies which sees a prodigal child return to their childhood home either to rediscover some lost aspect of themselves or realise that they no longer belong in the place which raised them. Shuichi Okita’s The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Mohican Kokyo ni Kaeru) includes an obvious reference in its title to Keisuke Kinoshita’s colourful 1954 escapade Carmen Comes Home which cast legendary actress Hideko Takamine somewhat against type as a ditsy airhead show girl eager to show off all her city sophistications to the rural backwater she abruptly ran out of some years before. Like Carmen, the hero of Mohican Comes Home makes an unexpected trip to visit his family in the picturesque Hiroshima island village where he grew up only to find not very much has changed but an equally unexpected tragedy prompts him into a wider consideration of his past and future as he faces life’s two extremes in the very same moment.

Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) left his island home some years ago for the bright lights of Tokyo where he fronts a punk band by the name of Grim Reapers. The band has some moderate underground success, but the guys are getting old for the punk scene and finding themselves with real world responsibilities from healthcare costs to the prospects of supporting wives and children. Eikichi, sporting a prominent bleached mohawk, feels this more than most as he’s soon to become a father and is intending to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), if only he had the money. He’s been promising to take his future wife to meet his parents for some time but so far they’ve never actually made the trip.

This time, things are different and so Eikichi makes a shocking return after seven years only to wander in during an awkward scene as his mother and younger brother try to manoeuvre his drunken father into a more convenient position whilst protecting his precious white suit from alcohol born ruin. Eikichi’s family own the village liquor store but his father’s passion is for music and he also coaches the local middle school band. A devotee of legendary Hiroshima born superstar Eikichi Yazawa, Osamu (Akira Emoto) insists the kids play his favourite tune ad nauseam to much eye rolling from the youngsters forced to associate themselves with such an uncool and old fashioned song.

Eikichi’s homecoming has not got off to the best start, especially after his father begins to sober up and recommends a hair cut and real job, both of which Eikichi resolutely refuses. Things take a more serious turn when Osamu realises his son is being financially supported by his girlfriend whom he has also got pregnant but is not yet married to. Experiencing extreme moral outrage at his responsibility shirking son, Osamu chases him around the table in what appears to be a scene often repeated during Eikichi’s childhood but the situation soon ends in an unexpected way foreshadowing Osamu’s decline into ill health.

Deciding to stay a little longer than intended, Eikichi and Yuka blend into the family home trying to help mother Haruko (Masako Motai) and boomerang younger brother Koji (Yudai Chiba) adjust while Osamu is in the hospital. The contrast between town and country, traditional and modern is never far from view whether in Yuka’s kindhearted decision to finish off preparing the family dinner though she has to consult a youtube video to find out how to gut fish, or in her astonishment at the very ordinary way in which her future in-laws met (i.e. simple propinquity). While the women begin to bond over their shared concern for their men as Haruko decides to teach Yuka some home style tips and tricks, Eikichi and his father spar with each other warmly as Eikichi takes charge of a band rehearsal and allows them to let loose on the much hated song with an energised punk fuelled twist.

Despite a strained relationship with his father, Eikichi is a good person who also wants to offer some kind of comfort to the old man in his final days. Going to great lengths to track down a particular pizza Osamu suddenly requests (the last time he ate pizza was on his 60th birthday) or eventually pretending to be Yazawa himself whom Osamu is very proud to have made eye contact with during a Tokyo concert in 1977, Eikichi comes to a kind of understanding of the man his father was as well as the man he is. Full of warm, naturalistic humour giving way to two elaborately constructed set pieces, The Mohican Comes Home is a typically well observed family drama from Okita which neatly undercuts its essentially melancholy set up with a layer of stoical perseverance.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Wang Xuebo, 2016)

knife-in-the-clear-waterTharlo producer Wang Xuebo looks north in this rare cinematic showcase for China’s Hui people, a largely Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the rural North West. Using a cast of non-professional actors, Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Qingshui Li De Daozi) marries a neorealist aesthetic with a Tarkovskian poetry as a widowed man faces the coming end of his own life largely through his self identification with his faithful bull, about to be sacrificed in the name of dead for the pleasure of the living. Setting religion to one side, this tale of rural poverty and people eclipsed by a landscape that’s as unforgiving as it is beautiful has an infinitely timeless quality even if this traditional way of life is just as moribund as the bull which drives it.

The family matriarch has died. Mild mannered paterfamilias Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) is now alone, bereft of both family and purpose. His wife may not long be dead, but there is the 40 day anniversary memorial to think of. Even if old Ma is not in the mood, Ma’s son, Yakub (Yang Shengcang – different actor, same name), is eager to make sure his mother has a fitting send off to mark her long years of sacrifice and toil. They could kill a chicken or perhaps a lamb, but with all the extended family coming in it might not be enough. Why not, he suggests, slaughter the family bull? They can’t afford to buy a new one, but the bull is already old and slow and no longer makes a good return on the resources needed to maintain it. Ma does not want this, but is powerless to refuse given all the financial and cultural concerns bound up in his son’s request.

All things considered, Ma had few pressing concerns in his life. He was not wealthy but he did not starve and does not seem to be unhappy in his lot other than his growing existential worries. Poverty is the normal way of things, but given the extreme need all around him, can Ma really conscience his son’s intention to spend lavish sums on a funeral feast which is intended to celebrate the dead – his own wife whom he would like honour, when his younger brother approaches him for rice in desperation at the thought of not being able to feed his pregnant wife? Touchingly, Ma visits a relative who relates a story of having met his wife in the marketplace not so long ago and lent her some money to buy a pair of shoes she’d been admiring. The woman meant to tease her by suggesting she ought to be able to buy anything she liked with her son’s fancy job in the city but could see Ma’s wife was upset as she sadly confessed that her son had his own family to think of and so she couldn’t bring herself to ask him for money.

Ma would have liked his son to return and farm the land as he, and generations before him, had done but Yakub tells him the life is so much better in the city – work is plentiful and much easier than tilling the soil in this inhospitable terrain. A scene of the family quickly whipping out the buckets and basins to harvest water during a sudden storm may reinforce the reasons he wouldn’t want to return but there is something serene about Ma’s simple life of prayer and farming which neatly contrasts with his son’s comparatively frenetic and nervous approach to life, caring more about the spectacle and less about the meaning.

This is perhaps why he acts so insensitively regarding the bull despite his father’s unusually sentimental attachment to it. Aside from being a long standing companion, as silent and pliant as Ma himself as they plough the fields and walk the mountain roads together, the bull serves to remind Ma of his own impending fate – an unwilling sacrifice to an unforgiving landscape. Ma, about to be put out to pasture himself, can see a kindred spirit in this weary beast, chained and cajoled, cruelly discarded now he’s outlived his usefulness. The bull, like Ma seems to be aware of his fate leading its master to wonder if, like the old story, it has seen the reflection of a knife in clear water warning of what is to come. No longer eating or drinking, the bull may not last until the fateful ceremony but whether its abstinence is a kind of self purification or a symptom of total despair, Ma is unable to say.

When the time comes, Ma turns away, wandering through the snowy, grave filled landscape alone until he finally becomes lost to us. The land swallows him, his chain may have been severed but he’s anything but free. Wang’s 4:3 framing is apparently inspired by Tarkovsky, as well as the painters Andrew Wyeth and Jean-Francois Millet, and his images do often have a classically inspired beauty reliant on static camera and noticeably contrived composition which may be at odds with the otherwise naturalistic approach. A sad tale of an old man and a bull contemplating the end of their world, Knife in the Clear Water is a familiar journey into the dying of the light but one no less well expressed for all of its subtlety and emotional weight.


Available to stream online from Festival Scope until 20th February 2017 in conjunction with International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short clip from near the beginning of the film (English subtitles)