On day three, I have thankfully managed to avoid further motion sickness. Although I cannot say that I have moved into a better environment. Quite the opposite actually. After Alamar, a lovely trip to an atoll reef off Mexico, I ended up in a cramped apartment in China.
Oxhide is, to my mind, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction. I felt unsure what was scripted and what was complete improvisation. In any case, director Liu Jiayin filmed daily life in the apartment she has lived with her parents. I was often surprised at the way Tsai Ming-liang has so far treated everyday life, and thought that he pretty much got the point. However, Jiayin went a step further and I cannot recall a single film that describes our (specifically their) mundane life so well.
There are two points in this film that interested me. The first was the framing. The slow films I study have as their main aesthetic feature a basis of vastness and nature. The landscape plays a major role, if it isn’t a character in itself (which I think it is in most cases). The framing tends to be loose, which is an interesting fact as loose frames are often associated with freedom for the character, but in the majority of slow films the characters are, in fact, trapped.
In Oxhide, the traditional feature tight framing equals pressure and stress on the character is more valid. It is for me the outstanding aesthetic I took away from the screening. The film was claustrophobic, especially over the course of two hours. There was literally no space. Neither for the viewer nor for the characters. Indeed, the father (who’s the director’s real father; she was filming her real family) says at some point “There’s no room to move freely”.
This also accounts for the viewer. It creates a tense atmosphere, also because we are often forced to witness arguments, and because there’s no free space to take our eyes (and therefore our mind) off things, we’re stuck with watching uncomfortably. Another interesting fact in the same context is the lighting. It always seems to be dark in the flat. I can’t remember having seen a single window in the film, which adds to the feeling of imprisonment.
The second significant thing is the theme of poverty and capitalism, which I recognised in quite a few films, especially in those by Lav Diaz. Jiayin’s parents design, make and sell bags made from oxhide. At the beginning of the film, the dad wants Jiayin to get discount advertisements ready on the computer. We see that he reduces the original price for a bag by fifty percent. The discounts bring in money, but he is unhappy about how he, as the maker and designer of the bags, and as the owner of the shop, has lost control over his business. He says at one point “It’s our shop, our bags – and in the end it’s the customers who set the price”.
Jiayin’s mother argues with him about his stubbornness. He wants to get rid of the discounts, while she argues that people just want cheap prices. For the customer, the shop owner or how the products had been made are of little significance. What counts is a cheap price. It matters little whether the shop owner can live off the money he makes with his own creation. She fears the date their rent is due, which tells us that they are indeed in financial trouble once he has removed the discounts.
It is a general theme that is picked up here. This has been developing for a long time, and it is true that more and more traditional craft makers go out of business. People want cheap prices. This is all they care about. This is also the reason why we see repeated accidents in factories, such as the one in Bangladesh this year.
P.S.: Yes, the screenshots are dark, but so is the film. Gives you an idea of how dark it really was!