Liu Jiayin's "Oxhide" Banal Fragments of Banal Lives By Pamela Biénzobas

in 55th Berlinale

by Pamela Biénzobas

The first work by 23-year-old Chinese filmmaker Liu Jiayin proposes radical questions of the basic concepts of film. Twenty-three fixed shots transmit the most trivial moments of her family’s life in a small apartment. And it works well. So we gave it the award.

“Experiments Wanted. The Forum places emphasis on young filmmakers and works that push the limits of the medium and perception itself. Appropriately, all formats are welcome. Documentaries and feature films are treated equally. The Forum program reflects a desire for a radical, impartial exploration of the grey area between genres.”

This is how the Forum of New Cinema, the 35-year-old independent program within the Berlinale, presents itself. However, not many of the films followed these guidelines. Among the few works that actually pushed the limits of the medium, Oxhide (Niu pi) stood out as a refreshing and radical experiment. Action, movement, time, editing, framing. the film questions the usual notions behind these concepts by using them in a totally unconventional way.

Though this is an anecdotic detail (that did not influence the jury’s decision at all), it’s worth mentioning that at 23, the filmmaker and protagonist Liu Jiayin was the youngest participant in the Forum, and probably in the entire Berlinale. Apart from her current age, twenty-three is also the amount of fixed shots that comprise the 110 minutes of film. Twenty-three ways of framing the daily routine of her small family in its crammed fifty-square-meter apartment. Twenty-three fragments of utterly banal moments that, even though they are staged, end up feeling so natural.

Beijing-born Liu Jiayin — who had never left her country before coming to Berlin — filmed herself and her parents in everyday situations. She set up the camera and let things happen, either in or out of the picture. Most camera positions are totally unnatural (rarely any group or two-shots at a normal level), making you feel the weight of its presence and immobility. The camera remains still. It is the people and things in the frame that move, enter or exit. The dialogue’s triviality only emphasizes the arbitrariness of the fragments chosen. The important thing is that altogether they make up a comprehensive portrait. If there is a narrative line, it’s the family’s — especially the aging father’s and the struggle with everyday practical problems, mainly with the low activity in his bag shop. The worst dilemma in the film is simply whether to offer a special discount or not. “It is my family through my eyes: narrow, depressive, dim and warm,” Liu Jiayin says in her presentation.

It is curious how that warmth is actually achieved and transmitted. Since the emergence of conceptual art, formal experimentation is often regarded as cold and intellectual. But somehow, through its gentle irony and sense of humor, Oxhide combines formal research with tenderness. Formally, the interaction between these petty conversations and the things we see — or not — on the screen create an interesting contrast that says a lot about the possibilities that cinema offers, which clearly go way beyond what is used in 95% (or more) of cases. These fragments of images, actions and words, and the fact that they succeed in painting the larger picture, also say a lot about what life is made of in 95% (or more) of cases.