Knife in the Clear Water

A Film Review

Knife in the Clear Water

Reviewed by Hannah Lau

Knife in the Clear Water
Directed by Wang Xuebo, Blackfin (Beijing) Culture & Media
China, 2016, 93 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles

Trailer can be viewed on YouTube.

Another favorite of mine at the Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year was the film, Knife in the Clear Water.

This captivating feature film was shot in the Xihaigu area of Ningxia province, surrounded by breathtaking landscape. The mountains, rough terrain, and clear skies, are much more than just the setting of the film; the scenery is so prominent and alluring that it almost becomes one of the characters in the story.

The story is woven around a poor farming family in a local Hui village. The Hui people are a Chinese ethnic group, predominantly Muslim, and located all over the country but mainly in northwestern China. An old man has recently become a widower and his son is making arrangements for the 40-day purification ceremony. As part of the religious practice surrounding the ceremony, the son suggests that the family’s only bull be sacrificed in honor of his mother. “She never asked for anything. She’s dead and I want to honor her,” he says. But the father, in his grief is reluctant to agree. The rest of the film is driven by the subtleties in the daily life of the widower.

The old man sitting alone in the rain, the bull that stops eating and drinking suspecting that it soon will die, the son who would rather stay in the city to make more money than take care of his parents, the spiritual struggle within before killing the bull, the overwhelming loneliness and purposelessness of the old man now that his wife has gone, all of these scenes are windows into the main character’s life. The audience is then invited in to process his grief with him, to journey with him as he tries to move on.

This film is not meant to be straightforward. It’s a stream of consciousness film, following the flow of thought and emotions. The bull in the film represents how people process and consider death and how we reflect on the reality of mortality.  Wang Xuebo, director

It is noted early on that there is little dialogue. At times, this impacts the pace of the film and can feel a little slow, but patience pays off. As the story unfolds, you’ll find that the sheer aesthetic beauty of each shot captures so much expression that words are unnecessary. Music was intentionally not used in this film, instead, director Wang Xuebo, chose to use sounds of daily life to create rhythm.

In 2010, Wang and his team went and lived in the village with the local people in the film for 10 months. It was during that time that he wrote the script. He wanted every detail to be as real and true to life as possible, and that could only be achieved by living among them. During the film’s production process, Wang commented that there were many cultural barriers to overcome. For example, communicating with elders in the Hui community and asking them to be actors in a film, all of that took sensitivity and finesse. As well, the Hui believe that the Koran speaks against acting so that was another hurdle.[1] However, it turned out his perseverance was well worth it. The film has won several awards at festivals around the world and was well received by the China audience, especially among younger people who appreciated that Hui Muslims were getting more exposure on the cinematic screen. 

A great first splash for Wang Xuebo, and a beautiful piece of art for Chinese cinema. Keep an eye out for Knife in the Clear Water at a film festival in your city, it’s soulfully beautiful to watch.