For the follow-up of her successful debut movie “Oxhide,” Liu Jiayin has chosen again to play on the familiar ground of her own domestic life, making it even more challenging for her to replicate the success of the first act without risking a bland remake. But she doesn’t seem to be afraid of challenges and with the same obstinacy that has propelled her out of that cramped flat, she is back with a fresh take. “Oxhide II”, already widely acclaimed, has earned her an award at CinDi Seoul, a place in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and one in the official competition at both Vancouver and Rotterdam Film Festivals.
In “Oxhide II” the director takes us back to Liu’s universe, in their small Beijing apartment, this time around a working table. Although “Oxhide II” is another snapshot of Liu’s family life, this time the movie concentrates on one specific event instead of few random-looking moments of the day; it is a dumpling-making session from start to finish. The film opens on Liu’s father working on his ox hide (we have learned in the first “Oxhide” that he is a leather crafter) on that very table that will be the stage for the whole action to follow. Soon, he clears up the bench, prompted by the matter-of-fact wife, as it’s time to make dumplings. Dumplings are not an everyday dinner but the familiarity and the ease of the prepping routine tell us a lot about a long familial tradition and about interpersonal dynamics. The duties are not negotiated, they have been assigned a long time ago; the man is the meat and dough handler and in general, the main player, mimicking his real-life role of breadwinner but also showing all the cracks and traps of his masculine role. There is a certain sweetness in the way we gradually realise the mum is playing a subsidiary part, only to gratify the husband who has already so many troubles with his trade, and to give him a chance to patiently pass on his skills to Jiayin. The director’s appearance provides, in fact, some comedic element, like her helpless and clumsy attempt to chop chives one by one with a ruler.
We watch the measured hand movements and listen to the conversation, mainly centered on the leather business and the financial worries, and once again, we are glued to the screen, in a sort of bizarre and guilt-free voyeurism. Moreover, not to be overlooked, “Oxhide II” has the great merit to reclaim cooking and eating to an unfussy normality so incredibly rare to find in these days of sad and boring food sensationalism.
Liu has taken a more rigorous and controlled formal approach on her sophomore work. She has carefully composed the film seamlessly joining 9 takes, some as long as 20 minutes, placing and rotating the camera clockwise (or I’d better say the cameras) of 45 degrees, in a way the last take has the same angle of the first one. It looks like a long one-take, even if it’s not, and has the same hypnotic power of “Oxhide” in attracting the audience. This controlled point of view, set on an uncontrolled action, creates some beautiful and aesthetically pleasing casual shots, like in the second take, when the table lamp splits the screen in two and the hands from top right and bottom left engage in a conversation, one creating a circular motion stirring the mix, and the other a linear one, cleaning the chives. A beautiful, complex composition. The director has mentioned many times in interviews her passion for photography and it unashamedly shows here in “Oxhide II”. The ratio is even wider than in the first movie and consequently, we rarely see the faces of the busy family, instead the attention is drawn on the hands and the table. The use of more professional lighting also is a rather welcome addition.
“Oxhide II” shows a steady growth for the director, in both technique and storytelling. It will be very interesting to follow her path to maturity and see what she has in store for us with the third and final installment of the Liu’s family trilogy, which she is developing at the moment while teaching screenwriting at the Beijing Film Academy.