Picture a film made as if looking through slats in a wall, peering into a dimly lit, traditional Beijing home. Cramped, intimate, and soaked in the sea-green of cheap lighting, Liu Jiayin’s feature films Oxhide and Oxhide II (牛皮，牛皮二) are concerned primarily with this sense of perception. Tight shots of hands, waists, objects, and only the occasional face – we wonder if someone has forgotten their camera and left the room.
But nobody has forgotten anything, and Liu Jiayin is clear in what she's trying to achieve. Shot in her parents’ home, with she and her parents playing the roles of mother, father and daughter, Oxhide and Oxhide II are highly stylised, cinema depictions of Liu's own particular view on the world.
Born in 1981, Liu Jiayin belongs to the most recent generation of Chinese filmmakers, and has already been credited as one of the most important of her time. I met her in a Beijing cafe last week, where I was treated to her plucky, Beijing wit and a self-possession that belies her age. Read on ...
CC: Oxhide was basically about a father making a bag, while Oxhide II was almost entirely about a family making dumplings. When I watch your films I feel like you’re asking us to observe daily life with great care and patience. But surely you’re not only showing us how to make a bag, or to make dumplings. What do you really want us to see?
LJY: Maybe it’s just how to make a bag, or make dumplings.
LJY: Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all.
CC: But we’re shown the years of repetition in this family’s daily tasks, we’re shown their skills, and how each member of the family has their own way of doing things. There’s a feeling of respect in the film.
LJY: True. These are the details of life that I think are interesting but that are often overlooked, especially within films, so I make a special effort to film them. Usually in films, if people are cooking or eating dinner, it’s never to show that people cook or eat dinner. It’s only ever used as a backdrop in which to show or say something else. So for example during dinner two people have a fight; or somebody announces they’re pregnant; or somebody announces they’re having an affair. And cooking scenes are often used to express that a couple are happy together; or to say something about a family; or the relationship between two people. These scenes are hardly ever about the cooking or eating.
I think these daily routines are interesting in themselves. I don’t have to add anything else to these moments in order to make them interesting to me. I don’t think you need somebody to catch fire, or for somebody to die, to make them worthy of observing.
So daily routines aren’t backdrops in my films – they’re the subject, and that’s very important. Nothing is simply a backdrop, just like in life. I can’t just say ‘today wasn’t really that interesting so I’ll cut that out’, that this day wasn’t really part of my life, or it was simply part of the backdrop of something else that was more real.
CC: That’s true too of the mis en scene in your films. The frame is so tight that everything is close up. There quite literally isn’t a background. You see people’s hands making dumplings and the fine details of their work, but there’s no real depth of field.
LJY: Sure, and that’s deliberate. I don’t think you can say that today was boring so I’ll ignore it, this moment’s important while another is not. As far as I’m concerned every day, every moment is equal in its importance. You can’t just say I didn’t like the last twenty minutes so they have no value and I’m just going to cut them out of my life! It’s not possible. It all exists, it’s all equal. So this is a way of looking at life, and if you take this way of looking at life and put it into a film it becomes a new method of filmmaking. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
CC: I wonder if this approach is a response to the pace of change and forgetting in China today. Your films are slow and observational, careful to include every moment, whereas modern China seems to be all about speed and forgetting.
LJY: Perhaps, but I don’t want to be too self-conscious about that. I’m sure my values can be seen in my films, but I don’t want to make any great statements about society. I don’t want to try to represent anyone or pose any arguments about how society should be. My life is just my life; my films are just my films. I don’t think I have to ‘say’ anything in order to make powerful cinema.
In China today, most filmmakers seem to think they need to represent somebody in order to give their films weight. A film has to represent a certain class or profession. I think if I can manage to represent myself then I’m already doing quite well! [laughs]
And anyway, who’s to say that I would be able to represent anyone else? Let’s say I set out, do my research, and make a film about China’s rural migrants who move to the city to find work. I might think their perspective is very important but how do I know I am able to express it? How do I know my opinions are the same as theirs? Where does someone get that kind of confidence?
All these films about China that we’re watching right now – I think they could have a very short life span. They might be relevant for about ten years, and then we might look back and find that the films that look at daily life might better represent the times.
CC: Still though, I think your films do say a lot about society, about contemporary China. Perhaps it’s just that they do so by describing your point of view so specifically.
LJY: I’m sure the audience can see my opinions in the content, but I’m still more concerned with approach. My filmmaking experience has always been about how to make a film. This has always been my interest, more than what I might say while I’m doing so. In these last few years my real interest has been with time in the filmmaking process, and that’s where I’ve put most of my thought.
While making Oxhide II what I considered most was this question of time. How to use ‘real time’? Should I use it? If I am going to use real time, then why? And how am I going to film real time in relation to space?
So I thought about that a lot and then chose my method. This is what I spent most of my time thinking about, not whether or not I should express Chinese tradition or anything like that. That’s not my purpose. My purpose is to develop a filmmaking style that expresses the way that I experience life.
CC: I guess that’s why your films seem so original.
LJY: Maybe, and it’s probably also why I don’t think they’re that unique. They don’t seem that unusual to me! [laughs]
When I’d just finished Oxhide I in 2004, some people thought it was so strange they asked ‘is this even a film?’ But I don’t make that distinction. And I never would have known the films were that strange until I became aware of other people’s reactions. It’s not like it was ever my intention to make a film that was really different, that would stand out in terms of style. I just wanted to make one that was true to me, and apparently this was the result.