Knife in the Clear Water
Qingshuili de daozi
Gateway | Dragons & Tigers
Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) is an aging Muslim farmer, part of the Hui minority. He and his family eke out an existence farming on an arid moonscape in China’s northwest Ningxia province. Forty days after his wife dies, Ma must perform a memorial service and invite his village neighbours to a feast. He and his adult son make the difficult decision to sacrifice their aging cow for the service, but the cow soon stops eating and drinking, as if in anticipation of its slaughter. Old Ma tenderly cares for the animal, washing it and attempting to feed it; perhaps he sees something of himself in the loyal old beast. Both of them are approaching the end of their natural lifespans, as is the hardscrabble way of life that characterizes their village.
Classically shot scenes depict beautiful details of a distant way of life; in one beautiful instance, a sudden downpour provokes a joyous scene of the Ma family deploying every pot and pan they have to catch the rain before it is lost. The film offers an un-exoticized depiction of everyday Islamic ritual in rural China; prayers, ablutions and other practices radiate a sense of inner tranquility. Made with astonishingly expressive non-professional actors, this film mixes super-reality with magical intensity. It has a stark spiritual purity, and beauty infuses every shot.
— Shelly Kraicer