Subtle, meditative and hauntingly beautiful, Knife in the Clear Water is about an elderly Chinese Muslim farmer mourning the loss of his spouse. Forty days after his wife’s passing, Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) is obligated to invite the entire village to an Arba’een (memorial) feast, according to tradition. His son (Yang Shengcang, different actor) begs Ma senior for permission to “honour mother” by sacrificing the family’s one and only cow in order to feed the large number of guests expected at the service. Ma is reluctant to do so, though, as he sees in the old loyal beast partly a reflection of his aging self and partly an echo of his faithful partner. However, as if it had already seen the butcher’s knife being sharpened in clear water, the old bull stops eating and drinking, and Ma begins to wonder if his cow had some prior foreknowledge of its destiny.
In this pensive debut, director Wang Xuebo’s lends us a window into the lives of the Hui people, a Chinese-speaking Muslim group. Set in the arid, wind-swept hills China’s northwest Ningxia province, the film offers a down-to-earth depiction of life in rural China. There is no running water or electricity, and the farming community scrapes by growing potatoes, herding sheep, and gathering alfalfa for their livestock. Yet woven into this simple, rugged, and often destitute existence, is the beautiful spirituality of Islamic ritual that informs every part of Hui reality. Ceremonies of prayer, ablution, and meditation infuse meaning into every occasion — from the slaughtering of livestock to the blessing of a newborn child. The absence of any scripted musical soundtrack at all in the film is remedied by the chorus of daily chants and spontaneous prayers that meld with natural bird song and wind chime to form one slightly disjunct, yet strangely hypnotic, polyphonic tapestry of sound.
Knife in the Clear Water is slim on dialogue, and, at times, viewers may find the slow-panning landscapes a little too reflective. But those who persevere past the lack of scripted audio and familiar Hollywood action will discover a cinematographic treasure trove of artfully planned vignettes. Time and time again, Wang plays with his audience’s sense of foreground and background — during one night scene, old man Ma shuffles past a window of his house after feeding the cow and continues off the movie screen, only to reappear moments later inside the house. We glimpse him through the window frame, illuminated by the dusty light of a single kerosene lamp. Wang’s chiaroscuro use of lighting too is exquisite. The tango of candlelight and shadow on the grooved face of the Muslim farmer as he reads the Qur’an before bedtime is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s famous portraits.
Simple yet significant, magical yet unexoticized, Knife in the Clear Water is a film that renders the earthy enchanting and the spiritual almost tangible.