Oxhide (Niu Pi, 2005) and Oxhide II (Niu Pi Er, 2009) occupy an unassailable position on the leading edge of latter-day international art cinema. As incarnations of no-budget, independent DV filmmaking, they establish both aesthetic and logistical strategies for the production of an artistically laudable self-made cinema. That is, Liu has made a set of films that engage deeply with the cinematic art of her precise historical moment, while also offering a template for the creation of comparably viable work under the most profound of restrictions.
Working in what appear to be the greater circumstances of poverty, Liu's twenty-three shot, 110-minute first feature Oxhide, filmed in the director's micro-sized family apartment when Liu was only 23 years of age, graphically magnifies the extraordinary limitations under which the filmmaker produced her first work: for each of the film's exceedingly small number of set-ups, Liu limits her visual field to an extraordinarily small fragment of what is already a very small space (fifty square meters, according to the film's US home video distributor, dGenerate Films). Within these gravely under-lit, static interior set-ups, Liu (a.k.a. Beibei) and her parents, mother Jia Huifen and father Liu Zaiping, playing with notable charisma what are said to be "fictionalized versions of themselves," eat, sleep, work and discuss (at times rather comically) the merits of discount pricing, squeezing into and out of Liu's highly constricted compositions; in most instances, the trio of non-professionals are only partially visible, with a set of hands or midsection all that appears on-camera. In one especially restricted framing, Liu shoots only the surface of a sparely lit desk, with a photograph flanking one edge and a laser print heavily cropped on the other. Throughout this, the film's lengthy second shot, father and daughter are audible off-camera, with Zaiping directing his daughter as she composes an advertisement for her father's leather goods store. Ultimately, the filmmaker gives her viewers a variety of pay-off, visualizing what had been only described heretofore, as the printer drops the newly authored notices onto the desk's surface.
Indeed, it is Liu's emphasis on off-camera space, procured through an exceptional reduction of the on-camera visual field (especially in proportion to what is signified off-screen - in a manner that has been eclipsed perhaps only by Abbas Kiarostami's more recent Shirin, 2008) that foremost marks Oxhide's contribution to contemporary minimalist art film practice. Considered as an aesthetic intervention, Liu's strategies shift the core of realist filmmaking from unaltered visual reproduction to the registration and indeed creation of space through primarily auditory means. At the same time, Liu's Oxhide methods no less indicate a filmmaker who has invented a style out of practical necessity: namely, that in shifting the emphasis from the visual to the auditory by means of reducing the scope of what is seen and what is brought into view through the film's exclusive use of a very limited natural lighting, Liu in effect masks (at least in part) the poverty of her micro-budgeted production. Oxhide's exceedingly restricted frame accordingly proves a polyvalent metaphor for the film's - and Liu clan's - comparable modesty.
Oxhide II opens with a twenty-one-plus minute static take, initially presenting Zaiping exclusively, as he forges another of his artisanal purses. Though the frame remains relatively tight, Liu's higher grade digital format (and even an on-camera, adjustable desk lamp) signal material advancements over Oxhide's relative visual poverty. Huifen soon returns from the market - she is heard of course before she is seen - and with Zaiping's present work complete, the couple proceeds to rotate the family's work table toward the stationary camera, thereby producing a proscenium as the surface of the now perpendicular table comes to fill much of the screen. In so doing, Oxhide II inaugurates its own presentational metaphor to stand beside the under-lit, constricted framings of Oxhide, which once again inscribed the earlier effort's material conditions in an equally allegorical manner. On and around this 'found' stage, the same trio of non-professionals spend the remaining duration of the film's 132-minute running time preparing, cooking and finally eating a total of seventy-three pork dumplings. (Their frequent debates about proper dumpling technique prove a source of charming, unexpected comedy that brightens the literally 'kitchen-sink realist' milieu.) While the home-made food items visually rhyme with the leather good that Zaiping is producing as the film opens, the commencing action seems ultimately to refer more to the first Oxhide; Liu essentially offers a negative scheme, in the film's opening as in its prequel, against which the director will work throughout the remainder of Oxhide II.
In contradistinction to Oxhide, wherein Liu's static set-ups mark discrete, spatially and temporally unconnected narrative intervals, Oxhide II presents a single facsimile of real-time across its minimal quantity of breathlessly long, stationary takes. When Liu cuts in the latter film, she most frequently does so along a semicircular axis, rotating to a new vantage on the persisting action; Liu's circular strategies indeed conclude where they first began following the closing dinner. The set-ups themselves extend the earlier work's visual restrictions, with bodies again frequently cropped both above the image and below. Liu's compositions also rely on a very subtle choreography of movement, as in the first film, which ultimately reveals the logic behind particular shot locations well after the cut has occurred.
In terms of its formal emphasis, Oxhide II ultimately trades the earlier work's preoccupation with off-screen spatial articulation (though it is once again utilized in the sequel) for a far greater interest in the narrative possibilities of extreme temporality. Joining Béla Tarr and Lisandro Alonso especially - Oxhide and Oxhide II likewise follow the post-Kiarostami Alonso's La Libertad (2001) in blending fiction and documentary within the context of manual activity - Liu depicts her task in its complete duration, with Zaiping and Huifen carrying on a conversation that at times picks up where it leaves off followings gaps that on occasion span more than half-an-hour. In this sense, Liu's duration permits her parents, in their 'fictionalized' versions of themselves, to speak as they would in reality, as people who live together and spend large amounts of time around one another do in actuality. In this sense, Liu adds to the realist mode once more, in this case within a film that showcases noteworthy maturation from her already extraordinary work in the first offering in the series.