(China) An Enlight Pictures release of a Changchun Film Studio, Tiger King Film Co., Enlight Pictures presentation of a Loongbaby Movie & TV Co., Shandong Film & Teleplay Prod., Beijing Geliang Media Co., Beijing Jia Tong Century Movie & TV Co. production. (International sales: United Star Corp., Hong Kong/Beijing.) Produced by Zou Xiong, Chow Keung, Cui Guoming, Jin Liang, Zhao Yunsheng. Executive producers, Zhao Guoguang, Zou, Wang Changtian. Directed, written by Guan Hu, from an original story by Zhao Dongling.
With: Huang Bo, Yan Ni.
(Shandong dialect, Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)
By DEREK ELLEY
War is crazy and most of the characters are, too, in “Cow,” an often brilliantly imagined black comedy-cum-magical-realist yarn about a dumb Shandong peasant and his cow during WWII. Motored by a tour-de-force perf from bozo-faced thesp Huang Bo (”Crazy Stone,” “Crazy Racer”), this powerful allegory about the stubborn resourcefulness of the Chinese common man amid mass inhumanity boldly announces writer-director Guan Hu, largely unknown outside his home turf. With 10-15 minutes’ worth of trims, the pic could milk modest arthouse life after grazing in fest pastures. “Cow” was tucked away in Venice’s Horizons sidebar but fully deserved a competition slot.
Opening reel, with Song Xiaofei’s HD lensing bled of any warmth, sets the tone as the solitary, half-mad Niu’er (Huang) stumbles around his deserted stone village of Yizhen and happens upon a mass grave. As Niu’er hears a strange whining sound behind a rock wall, the titular heifer makes a stunning appearance. It’s the winter of 1940.
Pic’s structure is not always easy to follow as it shuttles between past and present, though the general trajectory and message are easily absorbed if auds go with the flow. Guan, largely known for his successful TV dramas in China, used the same fluid approach to narrative in his 2000 kid-centered drama, “Goodbye! Our 1948,” with its sudden shifts from black-and-white to color, plus the same magical-realist tone.
A flashback to when the village was inhabited (and run on feudal lines) shows how the doofus Niu’er ended up with the “foreign” (Dutch) cow, an object of local awe for its size and ability to produce vast quantities of milk. When the Japanese first bomb and then enter the village, Niu’er flees; after most of them have left, he steals back in and finds some other survivors.
Caught and almost executed by the remaining Japanese, he’s saved by the arrival of the (communist) 8th Route Army, but the ornery critter proves more elusive. However, as a bunch of starving refugees arrive from the next village, the cow’s prodigious milk production is a life saver.
Guan uses the impressively realistic outdoor set of the village (built in a remote area of Shandong province) as an elaborate stage on which the madness of war and human cupidity are played out in a heightened style, with the almost knowing character of the cow selflessly dispensing balm at regular intervals. With Niu’er’s in-your-face emotions and hard-scrabble existence, the pic recalls Jiang Wen’s slightly similar “Devils on the Doorstep.”
As time moves on, and the war with it, Niu’er finds himself strangely attached to the animal, whose existence becomes of overriding importance in his life. Final reels, with a melancholy coda, are poignant, as man and beast brave the elements together.
Though the large cast contains a number of succinctly drawn characters, the pic is Huang’s show, as he traverses every emotion in a thick Shandong dialect that’s nigh impenetrable for Mandarin speakers. (Thesp actually hails from the province.) Only other major character is feisty peasant girl Jiu (Yan Ni), who takes a liking to Niu’er. Some auds may find the lusty overplaying a tad unnuanced, though this could be mitigated in the trimming.
Handheld lensing brings energy to the tale and reflects Niu’er’s mercurial temperament without becoming grating. Sparingly used music by Li Ke adds warmth at key moments.
Camera (color, HD), Song Xiaofei; editor, Kong Jinlei; music, Li Ke; art director, Meng Yu; costume designer, Hou Jingli; sound, Terry Tu; sound designer, Zhao Suchen; visual effects supervisor, Wu Qingtao; assistant director, Li Jinglan. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 10, 2009. Running time: 109 MIN.