Review: Knife in the Clear Water – Qingshui li de daozi (2016)

Knife in the Clear Water – Qingshui li de daozi (2016)

Directed by: Xuebo Wang | 93 minutes | drama | Actors: Shengcang Yang, Chenghua Li, Chengyou Li, Zhilin Ma, Ying Mi, Jie Wang, Dong Yang, Fan Yang, Xue Yang, Hailong Yao, Jinhua Zhou, Jinlan Zhou

It’s not every day that a film about Hui Chinese ends up in the art house, but with ‘Knife in the Clear Water’ we got our hands on one. This Chinese feature film is about one Ma Zishang, an old farmer who loses his wife one bad day. The Islamic faith of the Hui Chinese prescribes a 40-day mourning period, after which the family gathers for a ceremony. Because that family also needs to be fed, Ma Zishan is faced with the choice of whether or not to sacrifice his old bull for that meeting.

You can forget about this sentimental story right away, because it hardly plays a role in this film (except as a silent meditation on death). ‘Knife in the Clear Water’ depicts a way of life of an ethnic group in a remote village. So we see how a family prepares food, pulls water from a well, washes itself using a kettle or under a homemade shower. And we see this not just once, but over and over again. And we don’t see a domestic scene or a scene about herding sheep, feeding chickens or combing a bull.

Still, repetition isn’t the film’s biggest problem. As is often the case with such arthouse dramas, the makers are too eager to show how authentic their portrayed group is, whereby fundamental human traits and human behavior disappear under a layer of cinematic ethno-cliches. The characters talk, walk and behave as if there is Valium in the drinking water, every everyday action is done with a bizarre solemnity, they don’t laugh in principle and when someone is asked if he wants a cup of tea, he looks tormented for ten minutes at first. and then say yes (or no). These people don’t seem to know routine, because they perform every action self-consciously and as if they are giving a demonstration in an open-air museum. Behavior that is not found anywhere in the world, except in the art house.

What saves this film a bit is the visual aspect, in an almost hip Academy format, with beautiful nature images and beautifully lit interiors. The lack of music also works out well. Nevertheless, this 94-minute film too often feels like that 40-day mourning period. Higher arthouse art for some, soporific arthouse clichés for others.

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