Who would have thought that my favorite Mainland Chinese film from the last several years would be about a man and his stubborn bovine companion? Certainly not me. Cow (dir Guan Hu, 2009) is shaping up to be one of my favorite films of the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival and is also a great argument for why this festival exists.
Guan Hu’s film is something that honestly I was not really looking forward to. The premise is this: Huang Bo plays Niu Er, a down on his luck peasant saddled with the responsibility to watch over an foreign cow during the Sino-Japanese war. He already has a trusty Chinese cow (his name means two cows in Chinese, if I’m not mistaken) and wants no part of the new cow which was dumped on the village by a retreating Chinese army. The only reason he finally accepts this task is because the village chief promises him the local female troublemaker Jiu’s (played by Yan Ni) hand in marriage. After his village is destroyed by the Japanese, Niu Er finds himself alone with this hated cow which he names after the wife he lost.
What follows is a film that is at times a buddy comedy between a man and his cow and at times a brutal and bleak anti-war film that never hits you over the head with its message. Rather, it stabs you slowly in the heart with the brutality of man. Niu Er and Jiu 2 (the cow) struggle to defend the rubble of the village against bandits, refugees from other villages, and the wounded of the Japanese army. The story follows an interesting narrative structure that flashes back and forth from the present to the past with abandon, but it never disappoints nor does it become confusing. The comedy bits are played jet black, the most notable of which is a set piece involving landmines that the Japanese army had spread around the village. Also interesting is that no one group is portrayed necessarily in a good or bad light, the Chinese army, the refugees, and the Japanese are all trying to survive, mostly at the expense of Niu Er and Jiu 2. This film is not one to shove ideology down your throat.
I must say that this film is probably one of the most beautiful films of the festival. Song Xiaofei lenses the bleak landscape well and chooses subdued and muted colors throughout which are suitable for the mood of the film. All of the acting is great, but Huang Bo shines (as he does in Crazy Racers) as the hapless Niu Er. He shows just enough stupidity that we can laugh at him and more than enough heart that we feel each and every tragedy the movie throws our way. The film is largely silent, given that Huang Bo shares most of his scenes with the cow (who has great comic timing) and by the final act the relationship between man and cow becomes almost like family. The final images are poignant and the message that man and nature should commune in harmony and forget our petty squabbling while cliche works well here.
In all, I didn’t expect to enjoy a man and cow film after the rather amazing Korean documentary Old Partner (dir. Lee Chung-ryoul, 2008), let alone one with magical realist undertones and an anti-war message. But I did. This is the reason that the New York Asian Film Festival exists, to bring you films that you might not have picked up (or even heard of) otherwise.
Check out the trailer for Cow here:
Cow will be playing at the Walter Reade Theater on July 6th at 1:15 PM. Tickets and information can be found here.