Knife in the Clear Water (China, 2016)

Knife in the Clear Water is set in Ningxia, northwest of China, in a remote mountainous village called Xihaigu. As an independent filmmaker, Wang Xuebo wanted to ensure the authenticity of the production by casting non-actors, in this case people of the Hui minority, Chinese speaking adherents of Islam. With his crew, they lived in Xihaigu for a few months filming documentaries about the Hui people. Wang wanted to build trust with villagers and learn more about their cultures. His career started as a producer and he first made a name for himself in Tharlo (2015) directed by Pema Tseden, a Tibetan director and strong advocate of independent cinema. With the support of Tseden and after nearly a decade in the making, the film was finally completed. Knife in the Clear Water is adapted from the eponymous novel by Shi Shuqing who wrote part of the screenplay.

The opening scene is a flashback of Ma Zishan’s wife wearing a white headscarf, collecting grass tufts in a basket to feed their bull.  This film is a minimalist work, built on a series of vignettes, all extremely beautiful and intense, like that of the life of the protagonist Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcan). Like a charcoal drawing, the sketches of his sadness and doubts outline the shape of his destiny following the death of his wife. His son asks him to sacrifice their only bull to honor his mother’s passing and feed the guests for Arba’een (meaning forty in Arabic), a ceremony which takes place forty days following the mourning of a relative. The bull is old and hardly able to pull the plow in the field any longer; Zishan cannot refuse but agonizes over the decision since he looked after the bull all his life and is very attached to the animal.

To understand the life of people in Xihaigu, we need to know that their land is one of China’s most impoverished territories and was once classified by the United Nations as “one of the least suitable areas for human habitation in the world.” There is a scarcity of rain and droughts are a common event. Many scenes depict people either fetching water from a well or talking about how much water is left for the crop. The old man is shown twice in lengthy camera takes having a shower from a home-made device, an earthenware pot hanging from the ceiling with a rudimentary plug. Cleanliness is an important part of Islam and there are verses in the Koran teaching about ritual cleanliness. Hence, preparing himself first, he then takes out the plug and proceeds to wash himself according to their custom but with the gestures of a person trying to use as little water as possible. In another scene lasting over two minutes, we watch the son lift one bucket of water at a time from a well dug in the middle of the field. Trying to avoid spills, he carefully fills each trough so the sheep can drink their fill. Thus, the lack of water dominates people’s lives. One day, there is a rainstorm, and everyone comes out at once to use every available container to gather the raindrops whilst children play happily in the mud, a rare and joyous occasion.

With strong cultural tradition and religion being an underlying theme in Wang’s film, the main part of the narrative is, however, the old man’s relationship with the bull. Zishan is considering his son’s request and confides with the village Imam about the ritual sacrifice and his own emotional uncertainty. He feels remorse saying he has treated the bull badly. The Imam tells him that “We all have our own destiny” to which Zishan answers, “The bull is noble.  We are all blind and ignorant…..”, thereby elevating the bull as a spiritual being worthier than man itself. But the old man’s biggest concern is that the bull has been refusing to drink and eat since the days approaching the ceremony. He remembers the tale where a bull, having seen the knife in the reflection of the water (thus the intriguing title) knows that his end is near and stops drinking and eating to purify himself. 

There are many very slow scenes in this film, and one has to appreciate their simplicity to take in this 92-minute cinematic experience and its artistically symbolic tableaux. The naturally lit close-ups inside the mud-brick house are theatrical and accentuate Zishan’s deeply wrinkled face, a tell-tale of hard work in this harsh land. An oil lamp brought by the old man to visit the bull at nighttime creates light and shadow in the barn reminiscent of Caravaggio’s contrasts and feeling of intimacy. In a closing scene, as if unrolling a Chinese scroll, the old man, a speck amongst the vastness of the landscape, walks in light snow over endless barren hills, a deep symbolic representation of men’s impermanence.

Wang Xuebo won the New Currents Award at the 21st Busan International Film Festival and claimed the Director’s prize at the Marrakesh Film Festival in 2016. The success of this tale of loss and transformation lies in his attention to detail and his deep understanding of Hui culture.