Having worked as a producer in Pema Tseden’s (who is among the producers of this film) “Tharlo”, Wang Xuebo seems to have picked quite a lot from the Tibetan master, in a movie that moves along the same, utterly art-house, but incredibly beautiful and meaningful lines.

In the remote steppe of Ningxia, in western China, lies a community of Muslim Hui people, who live of their land in extreme poorness. In this setting, old Ma Zishan has just lost his wife, one of the most beloved people in the village. As he and his son are about to host a number of relatives for the 40-day ceremony of her death, his son, who had his mother in very high regard, insists that they should sacrifice their bull, in order to honor her properly, and make a big ceremony, to satisfy their many guests. The old bull however, is the one that helps them plough their fields, and Ma is reluctant to sacrifice him, although he does not actually protest. As he also starts worrying about the cost of the ceremony, some strange things start to occur, and the bull stops eating, falls ill and becomes unable to “work” anymore. According to a common belief in the area, an animal that has been marked for slaughter sees the reflection of a knife in clear water, which signifies its death.

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Much like “Tharlo” Wan Xuebo uses a narrative of utter realism that functions as a documentary in the way it approaches the details of the lives of Muslim Hui people. However, and despite the lack of action, the film is filled with sentiment, as it focuses on the themes of loneliness, the lack of communication between different generations of men, and the consequences of going overboard with tradition-religion, particularly in circumstances of extreme poorness.

Xuebo focuses mostly on the old man, who expresses a subtle, but constant sorrow regarding his situation, and the fact that he is facing an extremely difficult dilemma, that has him trying to choose between his religion and honoring his wife, and his living condition, which can become unbearable without the services the bull provides. In that fashion, Yang Shengcang gives an impressive performance in naturalistic style, as he exemplifies his character’s contradictory status laconically, but rather eloquently through his eyes and body stance. His performance actually anchors the film, in perfect harmony with the general style of the production.

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Wang decided to frame the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, in a tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky, and painters Andrew Wyeth and Jean-Francois Millet. This element becomes evident in Wang Weihua’s exceptional photography, which presents a number of images that look like paintings, both in the lowly lit interiors and the exterior shots, where his long shots highlight the setting of the story, and the insignificance of man in this irreversibly desolate environment. Some issues with the lighting do exist, particularly in the night scenes where, occasionally, is difficult to discern what is going on. However, this element also falls under the utterly realistic approach of the film, since electricity and thus light, is a scarce commodity in the area, particularly on the roads.

“Knife in the Clear Water” is a more than hopeful debut, from a director with true potential, particularly in terms of aesthetics. Pema Tseden seems to have started building his legacy already as the Sinophone art house film seems to be on the rise.

The film is released by Chinese Shadows