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)

Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Norihiro Niwatsukino, 2016)

suffering-of-ninkoAll life is suffering, and all suffering is caused by desire. Ninko, the titular monk at the centre of this entertaining oddity from Norihiro Niwatsukino, seems to have taken this to heart and is suffering more than most in his attempts to reach Nirvana. Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Ninko no Junan) takes its cues from the Hyaku-monogatari classical Japanese tales of ghosts and the supernatural as its seemingly comic story of a pretty monk and his ironic talent for attracting the wrong kind of attention gradually darkens until its unexpectedly strange finale. Visually striking if a little rough around the edges, Suffering of Ninko has a pleasantly organic quality as if its narrator were really making it up as she goes along only to tire of it a little by the end and give us a suitably spooky conclusion to send us on our way.

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is the most assiduous monk at his temple. His desire for asceticism knows no bounds as he spends his days cleaning, polishing the artefacts, reciting sutras and meditating. The problem is, Ninko is just too damn pretty. Every time he ventures into town the womenfolk go crazy, even getting upset if they discover he isn’t among the monks despatched on the daily alms harvesting mission. In fact, Ninko has also attracted the attention of the two gay monks at the temple which he seems to find a little irritating but unlike some of the others this is a very real problem for him as he’s decided to keep his mind and body pure though total celibacy. This unfortunate and quite ironic talent of his which makes him some sort of magnet for the repressed sexual desires of just about everyone actually makes him feel quite bad, arousing all this lust but ultimately unable to satisfy it.

After a strange encounter in the woods provokes a kind of spiritual crisis in the earnest Ninko, filling his world with bared breasts and erotic visions, the chief monk sends him off on a pilgrimage, reminding him that a denial of his baser emotions is not the same the same as facing them and will only result in additional suffering. Whilst on the road, Ninko meets up with violent ronin Kanzo (Hideta Iwahashi), and gets pulled into the strange goings on in a mountain village where the men have been gradually going missing. The locals have laid these disappearances at the feet of Yama-onna (Miho Wakabayashi) – a ghostly forest bound presence who seduces wayward men only to feast on their vitality.

Beginning almost like a rakugo tale, the central joke of Ninko’s ongoing, largely self imposed, suffering is in his ironic talent for arousing sexual desire in places which he does not want it (which is to say everywhere). More than just good looks, Ninko seems to have some kind of magnetic power which sends almost everyone he meets wild with insatiable lust which is quite the problem seeing as he’s committed to remaining celibate. He may think that he does not feel desire but as Kanzo later tells him, this denial is a kind of self deception masking the fact that he feels it all too much. The strange and mystical encounter with a noh mask wearing woman (?) in the forest leads to a bizarre sequence of beautifully choreographed visions of erotic ecstasy accompanied by Ravel’s Bolero after which Ninko has some kind of breakdown resulting from sexual frustration.

This first encounter with the supernatural leaves him with a burnt hand and a burning mind but also with the lingering suspicion that his curse may not be of entirely mortal origins. Thus he originally declines to accompany Kanzo on his quest to end Yama-onna’s days of wild abandon in the woods to enter a period of introspective questioning in wondering if he and Yama-onna are of a piece in their mirrored need for and denial of sexual pleasure. When he finally meets her he gets a kind of answer to his question which relegates the monkish Ninko to the realms of the forgotten as the newly born legend of Ninko-bo assumes his form.

Inspired by the classical nature of the tale, Niwatsukino makes striking use of animation inspired by scroll paintings, ukiyo-e prints, and shunga all accompanied by the gentle voice of the narrator to add to the mythic atmosphere. In keeping with its inspiration, the narrative has a suitably throw away quality as if it were all being made up on the spot which of course means that it drags here and there and ends somewhat abruptly but then that is the nature of the tale. A psychedelic oddity which revels in a sense of playfulness undercut by dark spirituality and existential dread, Suffering of Ninko is a story for a stormy night, strange and a little bit scary but with its tongue tucked firmly in its cheek.

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Out There (Takehiro Ito, 2016)

out-thereWe don’t move forward in this dance, comments the lady currently being waltzed by a charming lost soul. Don’t worry, he says, that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, Out There, the first independent feature film from director Takehiro Ito exists in a fixed yet liminal space, here and not there as its protagonist finds himself without the proper place to be. Conceived as a way of salvaging some of the material collated for a documentary on the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, Out There takes more of its cues from Tsai Ming-liang or even Lav Diaz in its preoccupation with the intersection between time, existence, and place. If that all sounds to weighty, there’s a little whimsy in here too, but the intent is a serious one as nationhood (or the lack of it), drifting cultures, love and history all conspire to confuse and distract the course of a young man in search of an identity which is entirely his own.

Beginning with an interview or perhaps an audition, the onscreen director questions the man who will be our star, Ma, about his motivations for applying – only, characteristically, he doesn’t quite know. From what he tells us, it seems his interests are largely introspective, unable to find a place to exist, perhaps he can carve one out for himself inside the fictional world of a film. Ito returns to this interview (or series of interviews?) throughout the action as Ma shows an apt desire to dissect himself on camera. The director is a minor player as Ma takes over, but like Ito he is trying to recover something from the ashes of a lost project, his producer sitting to the side, neatly picking apart the director’s somewhat thin proposal for a film about a cross cultural couple in which “everything happens by chance”.

The historical relationship between Tokyo and Taipei is perhaps a complicated one (though significantly less complicated than with many of its other neighbours), but there is a third party in this difficult romance in the spectre of America. Returning to Taiwan in the second segment, notably titled Land of Shadows, Ma talks to his parents about their views on global culture as Green Card holding Taiwanese who never made the move. In his original interview, Ma explained that one of the reasons he came to Japan was that he always felt like an outsider in Taiwan, unable to express himself fully. Having spent some time in the US as a child, Ma has a feeling America is “not for him”, but has also found that Japan is probably not the place he’s supposed to be either, and unlike his family he does not feel as if he can simply live out his days in his native Taiwan.

In a final discussion with Ayako – the actress in the film which never quite happens (in a sense, outside of the way it’s happening for us), Ma talks about the importance of memory which prompts Ayako to remark that it’s as if everything is already in the past for him. As if to symbolise Ma’s lack of forward progress, everything which happens in Tokyo bar a single flash of colour at the end of the interview sequence is cast in sharp black and white. Taiwan, by contrast, is shot in verdant colour though allowing for 16mm and 4:3 framing adding to the sense of nostalgia and homesickness which seem to invade Ma’s mind. This Taiwan is a place of backstreets and ruins, faded grandeur and unseen histories. Empty cinemas and abandoned film eventually give up their ghosts, but it’s Ma himself who seems to join them as he fades into the frame, here and not here as he repeatedly doubts the matter of his own existence.

There’s a slight irony in the way America has been idealised as a place of possibility given its (until extremely recently) severing of diplomatic ties with the island nation of Taiwan. Seeking a home in a place which refuses to acknowledge the land in which you were born exists may make one feel like a ghost, but Ma’s sense of existential dislocation runs deeper. A kind of hiraeth, a longing for a home which doesn’t quite exist, becomes a force which propels and halts in equal measure. Skating around Tokyo on his roller blades, Ma has no particular destination in mind except perhaps to escape himself. He takes photos of places because he doesn’t want to point his camera at people, refusing human connections which will have to be broken in his ongoing quest for a sense of belonging. As the director puts it, there are many endings but as long as he remains fixed on the concept of “there”, Ma risks losing the idea of “here” which remains in a state of perpetual future past, outside of this liminal space in which nothing moves or changes.

Ito’s drifting, experimental approach moving between documentary, narrative and fantasy with the borders between each as unclear as the hero’s sense of identity is one which defies categorisation, as much about the idea of place as the characterisation of the two cities at hand and the ever unseen spectre of the hovering America. Poetic, wistful, and imbued with a sense of loss, Out There is a poignant exploration of cultural dysphoria and existential confusion in an ever widening world in which past, present and future become indistinct in an endless journey onward to place or no place at all.

Currently available to stream worldwide via Festival Scope in connection with the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short scene from the end of the film: