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Reviews from Rotterdam: <i>Oxhide II</i> and <i>Sun Spots</i>

Oxhide II (dir. Liu Jiayin)

The International Film Festival Rotterdam concluded this past weekend; this year’s edition was of special interest to us, what with eighteen films by Chinese directors or with a Chinese theme. Two indie films in particular drew critical attention, much of which is summarized below.

Oxhide II by Liu Jiayin, already touted by the likes of David Bordwell, received praise from Rotterdam critics across the board. James Mansfield, writing in the film site Little White Lies, hails it as a “real discovery:”

The simple set up – nine stationary long takes around a table, moving 45 degrees clockwise between each scene to complete a circle come film’s end – is transformed into a humorous, quietly virtuosic family drama. Jiayin Liu’s second feature is set up as a quasi-documentary, with the filmmaker and her parents playing themselves (though working from a script) as they cook a meal in real time, talking about food, the family business, and life… ‘Oxhide II’ magically transforms the simplest of objects into a majestic stage, so that the everyday act of cookery is all that’s required to yield a grand narrative.

Gabe Klinger, writing in the French film site Independencia, also expressed astonishment over a film he describes as “simply made and may be simply described but is anything but simple.”

The film has a grand total of nine shots, each one emphasizing a different angle, but always in the general direction of the table (sometimes directly above or below it). The three characters step out of the frame every once in a while and come back with new ingredients, tools or arguments, and eventually the dumplings are boiled and promptly consumed. That’s all there is to it. And yet, it manages to be a profound reflection on family and the art of passing down knowledge.

In The Auteurs Notebook, Daniel Kasman calls it “a direct, honest, miniature epic:”

Discovering the simplicity and factuality of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II was palatably exciting, even if the film’s form and subject – the real time creation, cooking, and eating of 73 dumplings – sounds fit for pure formal exactitude. But Oxhide II rides high on process, on the pleasure one takes in seeing things assembled, made, slowly come to together; parts fitted, vague shapes formed, function revealed.

Kasman is more equivocal about another Chinese indie, Yang Heng’s Sun Spots, which, like Oxhide II, is the director’s sophomore feature. He writes:

I assume the genre of feckless, barely employed, malaise-ing youth such as those featured in Heng Yang’s second feature Sun Spots are a convention well past its expiration date, and perhaps relevancy. Yet few films so precisely and deliberately, almost stubbornly and most certainly stunningly frame their youthful clichés in as stoic and minimal a grandeur as Yang’s epic digital theater… Yet with such a look, the film seems to have little to say; Sun Spots’ youths are mopey and detached from the landscapes that imposingly pin them physically to the ground in front of us, but we get little sense of, say, the society of the kids, as Hou develops in the petty downtime of Goodbye South, Goodbye, or the local and historical context of Jia’s superficially similarly pictorial Still Life.

Shekhar Deshpande, writing in Dear Cinema, expresses more enthusiasm:

The film is a visual beauty to behold… Gung Ban [Sun Spots] relishes its frame with lights that are enchanting. There are scenes with something between a silvery daylight and a moody twilight fills the frame, without its golden tones. There are objects in the foreground of the characters, bear bottles, bags, etc. add to the surreal quality of the beautiful image.

Interviews with Liu Jiayin and Yang Heng can be found on Offscreen and the Rotterdam Film Festival site, respectively.


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