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In case anyone had forgotten, 2009 movies seem to keep reminding us that, yes, it's indeed the year of the ox. In Korea, they did so with one of the most shocking success stories in Chungmuro's history, the three million tickets sold by indie documentary 워낭소리 (Old Partner), about a grumpy, stubborn old man and his most trusted partner - no, not his wife, but a very old ox. And, although its box office score will not be as impressive as the ungulate-loving Korean doc, Guan Hu's brilliant black comedy 斗牛 (Cow) can certainly be added to the list, with a really strong 7.7 million yuan (around a million bucks) opening weekend, landing in second place. With the release of "light propaganda" behemoth 建国大业 (The Founding of a Republic), its chances to make much of a mark in the coming weeks are slim, but even only reaching 20-25 million yuan for a film like this would already be an important feat, particularly considering in what kind of atmosphere it was released in, extreme flagwaving bonanza et al.

Describing Cow is not so easy, because it mixes the hyper-realistic and the surreal with such delirious abandon that it automatically forces the viewer to question any expectations built at the start. On the surface, it might seem like something inspired by Jiang Wen's 鬼子来了 (Devils on the Doorstep), with a healthy Friesian cow replacing the two Japanese Army POWs. But once you remove the layers of local flavor, then the message is much less specific and much more universal, transcending the Sino-Japanese War -- film is set in the winter of 1940, right as the National Revolution Army began its reprisal against the Japanese, following victories in Guangxi and Changsha -- and maybe the creed behind war itself. Those layers, admittedly, might not be the easiest to get past, considering the thick Shandong dialect of lead Huang Bo, and that irresistible mix of grumpy but warm Chinese dark humor which drenches the film's fragmented narrative, going back and forth between past and present. But that's perhaps one of Cow's most charming aspects, the fact it trusts that the audience will eventually focus on the core issue at play.

Although the dreamy visuals and grouchy atmosphere of the film are not entirely unfamiliar territory for director Guan Hu, the maturity with which he mixes the absurd with the gritty and poignant is striking, particularly considering he's spent the last six-seven years shooting popular, but largely listless dramas on TV. Guan's call to fame was his debut in 1994, 头发乱了 (Dirt), focusing on the rock scene in the capital Beijing - displaying an eclectic touch, but without the confrontational verve of fellow sixth generation alumni like Wang Xiaoshuai and Zhang Yuan. That might be the reason why, after premiering in Venezia (Orizzonti section), it went on to release in Mainland theaters without all the hoopla Jiang Wen's 2000 Cannes Grand Prix winner generated. Maybe it's a sign Chinese authorities are changing, or perhaps they realized that Cow's ultimate goal was a supra-national commentary on man's survival instincts in the most harrowing of conditions. Yes, Cow is an anti-war film through and through, but it never beats you over the head with sanctimonious tirades about wars being just a collection of beasts fighting more or less the same way, with only flags and costumes distinguishing the two factions. So be it the National Revolutionary Army, dumb and selfish villagers still driven by feudalistic mores, the Kuomintang or the Japanese, it's all a big circus, with men playing the clowns.

Most fascinating, then, is the fact that our protagonist Niu Er (牛二, literally "two cows," or second cow. How fitting) is not too different from the rest of the crowd: he just happens to achieve that quasi-enlightenment before everyone else does, or maybe before it's too late. The reason why he accepts to take custody of this plumpy ungulate, sent as a gift to treat villagers and RNA's wounded with its nutritious milk, is because it comes with the added benefit of being promised Jiu Er's hand in marriage by the village elder. Jiu might be a boorish, proto-feminist version of the belle of his dreams, but he accepts anyway. The cost of being handed this responsibility is grave: Niu Er finds himself the only survivor of a massacre which exterminated the entire village. Sans the cow, obviously. After cursing his luck and starting things on the wrong footing with his new companion, cow and man grow a strange fondness for each other, friendship which saves Niu Er's bacon more than once.

What follows is an hilarious array of mankind's most colorful shades, from Japanese soldiers singing and dancing around the cow after gaining control of the village, to a group of refugees led by a quack doctor, whose misleadingly generous behavior hides the ultimate goal of turning our good old Dutch cow into a t-bone steak. Guan plays with the usual cliches of the war film in this middle portion, adding touches of brilliant dark humor amidst the gritty realism of it all, like when the land mines planted by the Japanese end up helping Niu Er more than he ever wanted to. He ably manages to turn those sudden tonal shifts into an organic part of a greater thematic whole, never putting too much emphasis on the black comedy, nor overplaying certain sensibilities of the quintessential anti-war movie - so, yes, we get the good old "even the enemy suffers like us" mantra, but it's never shoved down your throat. And once Niu Er and his newfound best friend move up the mountains for the final act, the film reaches a higher ground, conveying with nearly no dialogue and very effective performances (even from the cow) the message the film had been building throughout the first two acts. Sure, it's nothing more than a placid retelling of the good old "man and nature, together as one" philosophy, but it works. Pretty damn effectively at that.

Huang and Guan had already worked together on a short film in 2001, but in the meantime the Shandong native has become quite the household name in China, mostly through two extremely successful comedies helmed by Ning Hao, 疯狂的石头 (Crazy Stone) and 疯狂的赛车 (Crazy Racer). Even Yan Ni gained notoriety through comedies, although she's also done well in more dramatic roles, such as Zhang Li's masterful TV historical drama 大明王朝 1566 (Ming Dynasty 1566), starring alongside Chen Baoguo. But while Yan's role is mostly tangential (yet effective, in all its over-the-top charm), the film completely belongs to Huang, giving this boorish villager's unyielding fight for survival a touch of pathos which you wouldn't quite expect from someone as used to silly comedy as Huang is.

There is a nice word play around the beginning of Cow (also repeated towards the end), exemplifying the message of the film. Niu Er notices a sign over an unexploded bomb. The character he's pointing at reads 人 (ren, man), but he "was told it means eight (八, ba)," another character which looks quite similar, particular to untrained eyes like those of quasi-illiterate Niu Er. That is, eight for the mighty 8th Route Army, one of the major constituents of the National Revolution Army. A fellow villager corrects him on his mistake, saying "eight" is two divided strokes, whereas the character for "man" is a much more fluid, interconnected motion. Simple as it may be, that is really the core of the film: factions at war bundle men together or against each other through the dubious affinity of one's allegiance to the flag, but that union is only a mendacious excuse. That it takes friendship with a cow for Niu Er to understand the meaning and essence of "man" is a tad laughable, but such is life.

I never thought I'd end up saying this, but one of the best images of 2009 in films might end up being that of a man hugging a cow on top of a mountain. It's the year of the ox, all right....


斗牛 (Cow)
Director: 管虎 (Guan Hu)
Screenplay: 管虎 (Guan Hu)
Produced by: Changchun Film Studio, Tiger King Film Co., Enlight Pictures
Int'l Sales: United Star Corp.
109 Minutes, HD Color
Release: 9/11/2009
CAST: 黄渤 (Huang Bo), 闫妮 (Yan Ni)
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James MarshSeptember 27, 2009 12:43 AM

That's great news! I just bought tickets yesterday to see this at HKAFF next month.