Liu Jiayin’s spatial politics of reduction

Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
Erin Shevaugn Schlumpf discusses Liu Jiayin's documentary interiors in connection to Beijing's porous, globalized space
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In what follows, I’d like to look at the way that Beijing’s status as a global capital has been treated critically in Liu Jiayin’s feminist diptych Oxhide I (Niupi) (2005) and Oxhide II (Niupi er) (2009). Filmed in a tiny Beijing apartment occupied by Liu and her parents, these films offer counter-narratives of everyday life in urban space. Shot on digital camera, with a series of static long takes, and strictly diegetic sound, the films show Liu’s family playing themselves and engaging in daily activities: her father, Liu Zaiping, assembling leather handbags to sell (in Oxhide I); her father and mother, Jia Huifen, teaching her how to make dumplings (in Oxhide II). The films, which might have the appearance of “fly on a wall” documentaries, are in fact crafted narratives. Liu Jiayin wrote the scripts, chose the shots, and rehearsed with her parents so that the final films are products of planning, not improvisation. The Oxhide films remind the viewer that real life is composed of work, planning, and only occasionally flights of fancy. Liu charges this domestic space with the pressures of an implied off-screen space, that of contemporary Beijing, which seeps into the small apartment.

In this way, the apartment itself has a porous quality, both in the sense that it sucks up the life of Beijing’s people, social stresses, and urban transformation, and in the way that it can be conceived as one of many “minute interstices”—thinking here of the OED definition of “porous” provided in Sabine Haenni’s introduction— through which properties may pass. The thin walls rattle with the sound of urban trains passing on newly constructed railways just outside. As the Beijing Olympics draw near in Oxhide II, the Liu’s family livelihood is threatened by external economic forces. Though the films restrict the area the viewer sees, they give special access to the secret life of one working class family. I’d argue, in fact, that the framing and mise-en-scène of Liu Jiayin’s films perform a spatial politics of reduction, standing in opposition to the dominant discourse of growth in globalizing Chinese cities.

At 133 minutes and composed of only nine shots, Oxhide II aligns with the conventions of slow cinema.1For a more thorough discussion of slow cinema in Liu Jiaying’s films, see: Philippa Lovatt, “‘Slow Sounds’: Duration, Audition and Labour in Liu Jiayin’s Oxide and Oxhide II,” in Slow Cinema, ed. Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016). Oxhide II takes as its subject the work of life in real time, and—in both form and content—asks the viewer to consider: how are things made? One of the results of the film’s slowness is that the characters on screen distinguish themselves through little gestures and short exchanges of dialogue across long silences. In the fifth shot, with the camera stubbornly level with the table, showing headless characters from waist to shoulder, we learn of the mother’s contrary nature when she—against convention—uses her left hand to break the dough used for the dumplings and stirs the dumpling filling counter-clockwise. However, this sequence also reminds the viewer of the father’s melancholy. Having rented a shop for seven years, he’s afraid that the shopping center will decide not to renew his contract. Throughout the film, the father grieves the looming loss of his shop. It seems inevitable that the rental contract won’t be renewed. His artisanal handbags only sell when they are discounted. The rent keeps going up. As the family fills the dumplings and pinches them closed, the mother comments that they must push all the bad luck into the dumplings. Her father replies that no matter how much he pinches the porous dough he won’t be rid of his bad luck. Here the film shows that the apartment is far from immune from the impact of the pressures of global capitalism: it is not a shelter in its storm, but a space composed of moments of suspension without relief.

The quotidian work in living spaces has long been taken up as an interest of feminist filmmakers. With its insistence on working within the spatial limits of home and its attention to the work that happens at home as that which constitutes a life, Oxhide II articulates a feminine aesthetics. However, if Oxhide II speaks for women, it also—like the best feminist enunciations—speaks more broadly for the oppressed. Jean Amato’s article on the film mentions that “Liu points out that most of the technical problems [with the film] viewers mention, such as poor lighting and sound…, are a feature of poverty … When viewers complain that the picture is too dark, Liu responds that her home is dark and that she never lived in a bright space.”2Jean Amato, “Reframing the Material and Imaginative Geographies of the Home : Chinese Filmmaker Liu Jiayin’s [刘伽茵] Oxhide II [牛皮二] (2009),” in Spaces of the Cinematic Home: Behind the Screen Door, ed. Eleanor Andrews, Stella Hockenhull, and Fran Pheasant-Kelly (New York: Routledge, 2015), 111, The film’s last shot features the family eating their dumplings and ends with the father deciding not to go to the shop that evening. He’s not in the mood. Perhaps the pace of capitalism is leaving him behind, but perhaps he is content to go another way. Father and mother decide to take a walk and bring along some cat food in case they see a certain tortoiseshell cat again. It’s tempting to read this exit from the screen space and into the streets of Beijing as an instance of stepping outside the capitalist binary of the citizen as consumer or consumed. There’s a possible optimism in this ending as we imagine the couple walking the streets, taking shortcuts thorough the porous city, here figured as a place where chance encounters, wanderings, and choice are still possible.

I see Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films as illustrating the porous global capital in a number of ways. Business, commodities, and tourists flow between global capitals. These sites are defined more and more by their similarities rather than their differences; they are porous in their absorption of contemporary transnational capitalism, making them places where a person can reasonably expect to find an array of products and services available in other urban areas of the same status. Liu’s films reveal how individual apartments and lives are impacted by the pressures of transnational capitalism. And, by focusing on a very small space with a very slow pace and a very limited number of shots, Liu’s films push against the advancing speed and growth of “outside life” in contemporary Beijing. However, just as the offscreen space of the city poses threats, Liu’s films offer a glimmer of hope: the porous city may still propose the possibility for humans, like cats, to roam alleyways and slip away.


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