Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States. Today is a movie about the cows of warâ€¦and the cost of warâ€¦but mostly a cow.
Available on Youtube.
Niu Er returns to his village to find that EGADS!!! Those teeth.
Okay, my teeth are no prize and neither are those of my parents, but I never had to look at any of them up close. That picture is of the entire screen. And ten seconds into the movie, too.
Anyways. Niu Er returns to his village to find that everyone is dead. Everyoneâ€¦except a dog and a cow. That damned cow. That huge European cow. The Japanese Army had killed everyone but that cow managed to stay alive. Niu is grieving for the dead and furious at the cow. How can she still be alive through whatever happened to everyone else?
Through several flashbacks, the movie tells the story of Niu and the cow before everything went wrong. A while back, a group from the Communist 8th Route Army was stationed in the village, bringing along with them a cow. It is later revealed that the cow came from the Netherlands as part of a program to cement alliances between those fighting the Axis Powers during the Second World War, but none of the villagers would know that. Almost all of them are fascinated by her, since she is so much bigger than Chinese cows, particularly Niuâ€™s cow. The somewhat solitary Niu seems to be the only one who has no interest in this foreign cow, but others seem to think that he is staying back out of embarrassment due to his cow beingâ€¦smallerâ€¦yeah yeah yeah. Go ahead and make your joke if you must.
The 8th Army initially refuses to let the villagers get any of the cowâ€™s milk, since it is meant for the wounded soldiers. However, when they have to quickly leave the village, they end up leaving the cow as well, with the intention of coming back for it within a few days. The village elder has most of the men take part in a lottery, where theâ€¦winnerâ€¦takes care of the cow. Niu refuses to take part in it. However, someone else is eager to take part.
Jiu has married into the village, but has been widowed. She is considered bad luck and an outsider, but makes up for it by being extremely vocal, gleefully talking back to the village elders, and poking at their traditional views by spouting Communist doctrine about gender equality. The elders refuse to let a woman mind the cow, using the excuse that the cow is too big for them to handle. Somehow, Jiu brazenly rushes into the lottery area and makes it so Niu is chosen to get the cow, much to his irritation. This little stunt of hers, however, brings the two of them closer together, before the inevitable fatally tears them apart.
Back in the…presentâ€¦Niu wants nothing to do with the cow, especially when her loud mooing brings unwelcomed guests to the village. He could easily leave her to flee up to a hiding place in a cave in the mountains. Yet, he finds eventually finds himself unable to simply leave her to get captured or slaughtered for meat. He begins to form an intense bond with the cow, even naming her Jiu. His need to keep her safe leads him to make several bizarre and foolhardy decisions. Yet, it is clear that this cow, whom Niu never wanted, has become all that he has left in the world. She has become his purpose in life and he will sacrifice himself and everyone else to keep her safe.
This movie navigates through the murky area between bleak drama and dark comedy. The premise itself may come across as somewhat absurd and silly and the movie does not really try to transcend its trappings. The characters are rather over the top and Niu, who seems to be slightly unbalanced even in the flashbacks, appears to be on the brink of insanity in the present. The tone shifts between hyper-real and semi-surreal, particularly towards the end. It is not so much that things are treated as a joke, as much as it appears as if the whole world has gone mad. Just wait until that particularly scene with the Japanese landmines and try to figure out whether that was supposed to be funny.
Being that this is a Chinese World War II movie, the Japanese are inevitably the bad guys, being a perpetual threat even when not onscreen. On the other hand, there is one Japanese character who manages to be more sympathetic (maybe just through being pathetic) than the supposedly sympathetic Japanese soldier in City of Life and Death who would cause so much controversy the following year. Additionally, the Japanese are hardly the only ones who pose a threat, if not to Niu himself, then to the cow. There is a strange sense that Niuâ€™s quest gives him a reason to fight for something bigger than himself now that everything else of meaning to him is gone. At the same time, it sometimes puts him at odds with his own countrymen, be they bandits or merely refugees desperate for food and shelter.
Being that this is a Chinese World War II movie, the Communists are inevitably the good guysâ€¦sort of. Honestly, it is difficult for me to say what the movie is trying to say about Communism here. There are, perhaps, several interpretations. Most of the villagers seem to cling to the old ways and Niu himself seems either to be indifferent towards or just ignorant of Communist philosophy. Only Jiu seems to hold on to any Communist teachings, and mostly to thumb her nose at the village elders. One could argue that that these type of people, including Niu, are a symbol of the old ways and the tragedy of their succumbing to the Japanese onslaught was inevitable. At the same time, one could argue that the movie was saying that Communism was imposed on a Chinese populace that was neither ready nor willing to really accept it. During one of the earlier flashbacks, a Communist soldier admonishes Niu for not obeying a certain sign. Realizing that Niu cannot read, the soldier tries to teach him what the characters mean. In a Niu ends up mixing up â€œmanâ€ äººand â€œeightâ€ å…«. There is symbolism aplenty as the soldier explains that â€œmanâ€ has the two lines together while â€œeightâ€ (as in Eighth Route Army) has them apart, but it switches gear when the soldier gets tripped up; apparently, he has not learned or remembered all of the answers. The Communist Forces may be fighting for them, but there is a distance between these high-minded revolutionary ideas and the reality on the ground. Yes, the ideals may be all well and good, but they did not save the village or particularly show grief for the loss of civilian life and livelihood. The Communists may be shown as a force for good, but that is all they are: force. They are not shown doing much else to protect the people, let alone help them. The villagers are pretty much left to fend for themselves. And then it is just Niu and the cow. Who wouldnâ€™t go crazy through all of that?
If you are looking for a conventional type of war movie with a conventional type of war hero, you might have to wait until next week. Cow is one of those movies where you might not know whether to laugh or cry. The story is the kind of ridiculous that might actually have had a lot of basis in truth. The protagonist has a strange kind of nobility that one does not often find outside of satire. This movie is not exactly a fun ride, but it is not some weepy tale of woe either. What it is, though, is an enjoyable movie.