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This rare opportunity to see Chinese filmmaker Liu Jiayin’s astonishing debut film (it’s unavailable on home video) should top everyone’s must-see list. Liu and her parents, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, spend the film in the painfully cramped spaces of their real lives—a tiny apartment, the shop where they craft and sell handbags—revealing a family defined by frustration, disappointment, economic strife, and a pervasive, slow-burning despair.

That said, the film is also surprisingly funny, punctuated by visual puns, family eccentricities, and inscrutable contradictions that balance the iconoclastic visual style with a kind of tender absurdity that’s nothing if not a new breed of realism.

Comprising a total of 23 scenes, each shot in a single continuous take, the film’s pacing and framing are at once tightly controlled and fluid, claustrophobic and yet oddly open. Much of the film’s power emerges from Liu’s eloquent use of off-screen space, blending cinematic strategy, narrative engine, and philosophical stance into the kind of formal, visual, and emotional unity that’s rare from a first-time director—or any director, for that matter.

The use of the “open” frame and the widescreen format disconcertingly only increases the sense of containment, isolation, and desperation. Oxhide’s humor often arises from the fact that our ability to identify what we are seeing is deferred for so long that the absurdity becomes inescapable. This is a world out of joint, a world where nothing and no one is able to achieve coherence or fulfillment; the director’s unmitigated refusal to yield to our demand for coherence is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of life under pressure we could ask for.

The film’s precise, uncompromising, and inventive visual style pushes so far past what our expectations of film language have prepared us for that we feel Liu is teaching us a new language altogether.

Preceding Oxhide will be Andrea Dorfman’ 35-millimeter animated short, “Flawed.” As we watch the filmmaker draw each frame, “Flawed” explores the nature of love, self-esteem, and the troubled relation between the two. Both films will be screened as part of the International Women’s Film Festival on Thursday March 24 at 7pm at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center.

lizzie finnegan

Watch the trailer for Oxhide

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