Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. Here is an index.
Liu Jiayin's Oxhide II was my favorite film at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It's one of those marvelous film-going experiences where you don't know what you're seeing, and it turns out to be something wondrous, in this case a two and a half hour movie about a family making dumplings, shot in nine long takes, each set-up 45 degrees counterclockwise from the previous shot. It remains one of my favorites, and her short 607, which I saw at the 2010 VIFF (the family in a hotel room bathroom, making an undersea adventure out of their hands and a few mundane props), only confirmed by belief that Liu is one of the great filmmakers of our time.
So it was with great trepidation that I finally sat down to watch her first film, Oxhide, which won the VIFF Dragons & Tigers competition at the 2005 festival. I've had it here for months, but finally I built up the nerve and was not disappointed. Not as rigid as the sequel, or as magical as the short, it is nonetheless a striking piece of filmmaking. Again starring Liu and her parents, her long, oblique takes follow some period of time in their day to day lives. Process sequences: examining a piece of leather for defects, making sesame paste fit for consumption with noodles, cleaning some dirty windows, are interspersed with family arguments, which tend to be about one of two things: money and why Jiayin isn't growing any taller.
The money angle is somewhat expected, but Liu brings a fresh take on it. Her father initially prints some signs for a sale: everything 50% off. This works and he brings in some much needed cash to their tiny apartment (made all the tiny by Liu's compressed scope frames). But soon he becomes disgusted with this. He's set a fair price that compensates him for his labor. Why should he be forced to offer things at a discount, even a fake discount (by raising the initial price)? It's the charming obstinance with which a generation that's seen massive economic and social change negotiates the truly weird places they find themselves. You can't help but admire the guy for all his pig-headed foolishness.
Always Liu's camera is looking slightly away, she's giving us only side-long glances at her family (the murky quality of the available images certainly doesn't help, on film Oxhide II looked much brighter than what I have available here). Like what we're seeing is caught accidentally, not framed and composed for the cinema (though, as I recall, everything is carefully scripted beforehand in both Oxhide films). This can be frustrating at times (we spend five minutes staring at a table as Jiayin and her father work on the computer - why can't we see what they're working on), but I wonder why we're so curious. Shouldn't we be somewhat ashamed to look straight-on into other people's lives? Nothing tabloid-like or scandalous goes on here, and maybe that makes our peeping even worse.