“Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I’m getting used to it now”
Life During Wartime – Talking Heads
I had heard a little about this movie before watching it, and had read some basically glowing reviews, but I was not prepared to find just what a fine film it was.
“Cow” is set during the Japanese invasion of China during the early days of the second World War. More specifically it is set in a remote village, full of rural types for whom the war is a somewhat abstract concept, and day-to-day living is the more immediate struggle. A Dairy Cow from Holland has been delivered to the local Army, which we see is quite the novelty due to its large size and amazing Milk production capabilities. We join one of the more simple villagers, Niu’er (Huang Bo), who is charged with looking after the Cow when the Japanese start to advance on the village, forcing the locals to plan an emergency departure. Unfortunately, they spend too long, and as the story unfolds Niu’er is left alone with the Cow, and we follow his struggles to survive.
The film on the whole follows two distinct timelines – they days before the attack, where we get a feel for life in the village, and the slowly blossoming romance between Niu’er and the feisty widow, Jiu (Yan Ni) – and the events after the attack (well it seems to have been a massacre). Niu’er has to deal with village politics, Jiu, The Japanese and Chinese Armies, refugees from another village, bandits, and of course the somewhat wilful and stubborn Cow.
The film is shot in that colour-drained almost monochromatic style which seems so popular these days, with the odd flash of colour. Far from feeling clichéd, the style seems right for this film – this is a harsh location, and it is a harsh time.
Huang Bo is remarkable – he plays a simple man, one struggling to survive, struggling to deal with his loss. He is no hero, he is not a clever man, but he is driven by the responsibilities that have been somewhat forced upon him both by the village elders, Jiu and the randomness of life. I totally bought into the reality of his character. Yan Ni is also exceptional, a shining light in her adopted village, filling the screen with her smile and joyful, playful nature.
Now I don’t like Cows. I was bought up on a farm, and I detest the animals. They are horrible, big, clumsy and their wet noses make me feel ill. Yet the Cow here won me over. Of course the Cow is a metaphor for many things, and to be honest it seems to do things that I know a Cow would never do, but it is a vital part of the story (yes, I know that a film called “Cow” would probably make this obvious).
Although the films structure does seem to be leading up to a graphic display of the massacre in the village, we are spared the details, only ever really being party to the events leading up to and the after affects of the resulting horror. I liked this approach – it fit with the blackly comic approach of the film, allowed the emotion to be felt, but did not wallow in the voyeuristic possibilities.
The films timeline eventually becomes more fractured, along with moments of surrealism – I took this to echo the mental state of our protagonist, with later events appearing possibly out of sync, and even possibly victim of the unreliable narrator.
This is not a film that will fill you full of hope. There is no happy ending for you here, maybe if you are Chinese you may find some hope in the ending, but as an outsider I found little cheer to be found. It tells us truths that are blindingly obvious – war sucks, killing someone is really rather hard and landmines help nobody. But it is a refreshing film which bravely does not glorify war or the combatants on either side, just showing us the realities of life during Wartime of those not directly involved in conflict.
I found this film quite remarkable – Highly recommended.