An old farmer has difficulty giving up his bull for sacrifice in “Knife in the Clear Water,” a somber elegy richly lensed like a rotating gallery of oil paintings. While news related to Muslim ethnic groups in China has largely focused on Uighurs and their separatist movement, this minimalist debut by Wang Xuebo affords a rare glimpse into the Hui, a Chinese-speaking Muslim group, as well as their faith and docile views about destiny. While the downbeat, sparsely-plotted yarn risks turning into an ethnographic pastoral at times, it also observes their dire poverty and probably disappearing agrarian lifestyles. Some audiences may understandably tune out the film’s sleepy rhythm, but those who rate imagery over dialogue or drama may buy it’s earthy simplicity.

According to Wang, who produced Tibetan helmer Pema Tsedan’s “Tharlo” before making his own directorial debut, he decided to frame for a 4:3 aspect ratio in emulation of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as painters Andrew Wyeth and Jean-Francois Millet. While this film lacks the aesthetic or philosophical depths of Tarkovsky’s work, its swarthy lighting of primitive, electricity-free interiors and blending of human figures into stunning images of parched, mountainous terrain in Ningxia do evoke the abstract-realism of Wyeth and the rural lyricism of Millet.

On the day of his wife’s burial, Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) must plan for the “Arba’een” ceremony to be held on the 40th day after her passing. His son (Yang Shengcang, a different actor with the same name) pleads with him to slaughter their only bull to feed the large number of guests who’ll come to pay respects. The farmer has no grounds on which to refuse: His wife deserves to be honored for working hard all her life, and besides, the bull is old and has little strength left to plow the fields. And yet, he cannot part with the animal that, much like his wife, labored meekly for him all its life, especially since he’s already lost his closest companion.

As if aware of its impending doom, the bull loses its appetite, falls ill and becomes too weak to till the soil. Believing in the traditional wisdom, which holds that when an animal has been marked for slaughter, the beast sees the reflection of a knife in the way and recoils with fear. Although it’s never spelled out, the protagonist secretly sees the bull as a kindred spirit — a domesticated slave, passively getting on in years, its lonely, inconsequential death looming not so far off. A calm, soft-spoken man and a patient listener, he nonetheless carries an air of dejection around him.

Not a lot happens in the 90 or so minutes leading up to the ceremony, but seeing Ma and his neighbors struggle to till the fallow soil underlines the inhospitable nature of their environs. Ma’s only livestock other than the bull is a lone little lamb. The screenplay by Wang, Shi Shuqing, Ma Jinlian, and Ma Yue is built around the small handful of people in Ma’s orbit, all of whom are also dirt poor. A scene in which Ma visits his niece to return a piddly sum his wife borrowed is subtly wrenching. Ma wishes his son could return from the town to help him farm, but predictably, he says it’s easier to find jobs in town to feed the young mouths at home, suggesting the age-old community is already on its way to dissolution.

The helmer eyes their lot with perceptive detachment, avoiding a strident voice of social protest or melodramatic lament. He also captures the peace and piety of the community during worship. Ma’s meeting with the Imam transcends his guilt toward the bull, turning the consultation into a lesson on how to accept one’s role in God’s chain of being. A silent scene in which Ma reads the Quran under a frail, swaying oil lamp the night before the 40-day ritual evokes a kind of spiritual rhapsody.

The senior Yang’s wrinkled face appears to be a depository of a lifetime of back-breaking labor and other untold turmoil. The final shots take one’s breath away, transporting audiences into a symbolic realm where the old man’s inner landscape mirrors the barren, snow-blanketed exterior, inviting viewers to wonder whether he is at peace or has his heart frozen after losing everything.

Busan Film Review: ‘Knife in the Clear Water’

Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (New Currents), Oct. 7, 2016. (Also in Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN. (Original title: "Qing shui li de dao zi")

  • Production: (China) A Beijing Ocean & Time Culture Communication Co., Zhejiang Jiashang Film and Media Co., Xinhuanet Co., Sichuan Branch Ningxia Ming Dao Culture Development Co., Beijing Bolaa Advertisement Media Co., Blackfin (Beijing) Culture & Media Co. production. (International sales: Asian Shadows, Beijing.) Producers: Wang Xuebo, Wang Zijian, Chen Cheng, Chen Jian. Executive producers: Xu Li, Chen Yaojun, Hou Dawei Ma Zongying, Long Feng, Wang Zijian, Derek Yee, Zhang Meng, Pema Tseden, Zhu Laicheng, Lhahua Gyal.
  • Crew: Director: by Wang Xuebo. Screenplay: Wang, Shi Shuqing, Ma Jinlian, Ma Yue. Camera (color, 1.37:1): Wang Weihua. Editors: Liao Qingsong, Guo Xiaodong, Wang.
  • With: Yang Shengcang, Yang Shengcang, Zhou Jinhua, Yang Fan, Yang Xue. (Mandarin dialogue)