Tharlo 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)