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For the Love of Cow - Interview with Guan Hu and Huang Bo

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

When this year's Golden Horse Award nominations were announced, one film title in particular jumped out: Cow. Garnering a surprising seven nominations, the uncanny Mainland China feature about the great love between a peasant and his cow during the Second Sino-Japanese War has emerged as an unlikely audience favorite and award contender. Sixth Generation director Guan Hu and newly crowned Golden Horse Best Actor Huang Bo take a humble premise and run with it, taking the wartime black comedy all the way to the 66th Venice Film Festival and to the 6th Hong Kong Asian Film Festival.

Set in 1940 China, Cow follows a bumbling peasant and a lumbering Dutch dairy cow's steadfast camaraderie and struggle for survival after their village is massacred by Japanese soldiers. Huang Bo plays the human lead, simple-minded cowherd Niu'er (which means "little cow" in Chinese), who almost despite himself puts his life on the line to protect a cow placed in his care by the revolutionary army. Full of valor but free of any grand messages, this atypical war drama is deeply humanist in its portrayal of the different characters affected by war, be it Niu'er, the villagers, the soldiers, or the eponymous cow. A small movie with big production values about a small hero in big times, Cow turns a small story of survival into an almost epic experience.

A Uniquely Chinese Story

Cow is based on a folk tale from the Shandong region of eastern China. Guan happened to be shooting a TV drama in the town of Yimengshang, and came across this interesting fable. "They had many folk stories about the Warring States era, Zhou Dynasty, Song Dynasty, and more, but this is the one that touched me the most so I wanted to make it into a film." In the story, Guan saw something "uniquely Chinese" that he wanted to express on screen.

Though there is also a novel by Zhao Dongling about the story, Guan himself has never read the book. "The true original story consists of only one line," the director notes. "During that time there was a peasant pulling a foreign cow over a foolish promise, and they both managed to survive." He used these few words to develop an entire script which won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Golden Horse Awards.

Guan approaches the narrative in an elliptical manner, beginning with perhaps the film's most shocking scene - Niu'er stumbling through the village after an attack to find a pit of charred corpses. After this jarring introduction, the village's only other survivor, the dairy cow, makes her grand entry by breaking through a wall, the director's pick for the film's most memorable scene. From here, Niu'er reluctantly but inevitably takes the cow under his wing, protecting her from Japanese soldiers, bandits, and starving refugees. Naming the cow after his dead wife, he transfers all his hope, frustration, and affection to the cow, which reciprocates the bond in her own way. The past - including how Niu'er came to be connected with Jiu'er the woman and Jiu'er the cow - is revealed piecemeal through flashback amid their amusing survival adventures, allowing the audience to gradually understand the significance of different symbols and relationships.

The film presents the oft-dark subject matter with brutal honesty and black comedy, balancing the weight of life and death with the preposterousness of war. Guan acknowledges that stories are usually told a certain way to progress smoothly, but he persists in telling his story in a less straightforward, but ultimately more effective and engaging manner: "Smoothness is not necessarily a good thing for a film... There's no need to worry if you don't understand a story [at first]."

In contrast to his storytelling style, Guan is very direct with his words and messages. Though Cow is a Chinese wartime drama set in the flag-waving Sino-Japanese War period, the grassroots heroism and camaraderie of Niu'er and Jiu'er are rooted in endurance, not idealism. Niu'er is a simple man trying to survive in chaotic times, as is the hateful Japanese soldier carrying a photo of his family. "This film does not express any opinions on war," the director insists. "To me war is people killing people. Don't talk to me about morality, justice, ideals, nationalism. For the people of that period, the farmers, it's just killing... people in uniforms killing each other. That's war."

The Farmer and The Cow

The accidental war heroes that emerge in Cow, a hardy peasant and a hardier bovine, are unlike any other depicted in Chinese Cinema. "This film can actually be considered an art film, but we didn't want it to be too serious, and have a dark, brow-furrowing atmosphere," says leading man Huang Bo, who lightens the film considerably with his comedic talents while also bringing out the strength and sentiments of a happy-go-lucky peasant thrown into adversity. Guan sums it up best: "Huang Bo's character's aura is not about courage, rather all his energy comes from persistence and quietly enduring everything." Huang also forges amazing chemistry with his animal co-star, which displays a truly remarkable range of emotions and actions in the film. Getting a performance worthy of equal billing from the cow, however, was no easy task.

There are actually multiple cows used in the film. The production team brought on seven dairy cows that could fulfill the different needs of the script, though three of the candidates were eliminated during the shooting process. For an actor, there is perhaps nothing more than challenging than acting opposite an animal. "It's not just simply physically tiring, but having to deal with something unfamiliar," Huang recalls. "I had never had this kind of experience before." It took a long time for the dairy cows to become comfortable with the mountain environment and being surrounded by people and equipment. Many of the scenes in the film took over 100 takes!

"After the first day of shooting, we were all basically very defeated, and thought that it might not be possible to shoot. Just pulling the cow around for a walk on the mountain, we couldn't complete the scene even after repeated takes. The cow didn't want to walk, the cow sat down. I looked at the script and saw that we still had to do this and that with the cow - it's impossible!" Huang found the only way to work with the cows was to become a cowherd himself, to communicate and interact with the cows and slowly gain their trust and cooperation. "After acting with animals, I thought to myself, from now on no matter who my co-star is, I can do it."

The Black Horse

Guan and Huang's great efforts were affirmed when Cow pulled in over 10 million yuan (US$1.46 million) in its opening weekend, admirable numbers for a medium-sized production in the slow month of September. Propelled by good reviews and word of mouth, the film turned into a black horse at the box office and the Golden Horse Awards.

Both Guan and Huang, however, are more reserved about the film's success. "I don't think it's that successful, just we began with very low expectations," Guan exclaims. "We started from the lowest denominator and just filmed what we could. Then as we progressed, I gradually thought this could be a good film." To Huang Bo who also recently starred in the mega blockbuster Crazy Racer, "The box office for Cow is actually low among the films I made this period, but for this type of film this box office can already be considered a small miracle."

In regards to being nominated in seven categories including Best Film and Best Director at the 46th Golden Horse Awards, Guan responds, "Truthfully, I was very surprised since it's been so many years. Getting acknowledged by industry professionals is a great reward for the film. The chances of winning aren't high, but it's still good that the film can be presented on a different stage since this is for all Chinese region films." He adds, "I do hope he [Huang Bo] can win, because it really wasn't easy for him." Guan's hopes came true as Huang Bo ended up sharing the Best Actor Award with Nick Cheung.

The Director and The Actor

Both director Guan Hu and Huang Bo have traveled a roundabout route to get to where they are today. A 1991 graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Guan Hu made his directorial debut in 1994 with Dirt, a youth film about the Beijing underground rock scene. Unlike other directors of the Sixth Generation like Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Jia Zhangke, Guan Hu did not have sensational run-ins with the state censors, or rise quickly to international prominence. The director's next three films - sensitive modern dramas Cello in a Cab (1996) and Eyes of a Beauty (2002) and patriotic wartime drama Farewell Our 1948 (1999) - all fall outside of what may be associated with the Sixth Generation aesthetic, but Guan has never agreed with the "Sixth Generation" label to begin with. He views "Sixth Generation" as a term of convenience that people use because of the existence of the Fourth and Fifth Generations before, but in reality the so-called Sixth Generation filmmakers are all very different save for maybe their ages.

Cow is actually Guan's first feature film in five years. Since Eyes of a Beauty, he has worked mainly in television, directing serials like the acclaimed Black Hole (2001), The Winter Solstice (2003), and Huo Zhe Zhen Hao. While shooting TV dramas is a good way to refine a director's techniques and abilities, Guan acknowledges that after a while it becomes just commercial work, a meal ticket. "Everyday I was thinking about making a movie but I had to wait for an opportunity," he recalls. "I wanted to do something true to myself and I eventually found this story."

From the very beginning, Huang Bo was the man Guan had in mind for Cow. Huang and Guan's history goes back to 2001 and the television movie Shang Che Zou Ba, which was Huang's acting debut. At the time, Guan was looking for an actor who could speak the Shandong dialect, and Huang fit the bill. Since then, Huang's Shandong dialect and distinctive mug have become a frequent and familiar screen presence. He went on to appear in several of Guan's TV dramas before getting his big break in 2006 with Ning Hao's sleeper hit Crazy Stone. After Crazy Stone, the offers kept coming for Huang Bo, and he solidified his funnyman image in comedies like Big Movie, Tian Tai, Two Stupid Eggs, Gao Xing, and Ning Hao's blockbuster follow-up Crazy Racer.

"Acting seemed like a profession that would never have anything to do with me," Huang admits, "but I just started doing it." Though it may be hard to imagine based on his movies, Huang actually started out in music and spent many years as a struggling artist, doing everything from lounge singer to dance instructor and emcee. "I don't know what I spent all those years singing for. I didn't accomplish anything," he comments wryly, "but the work I did before is good experience for my current work. The people and situations I encountered then can be applied to my characters now."

After working together for so many years, Guan and Huang have a rapport that goes beyond just director and actor. "I have nothing good to say [about Guan]," Huang jokes. "My initial knowledge of acting and movies all came from the director. He can be considered my teacher in this field so it's natural that we have similarities. He's influenced me a lot, and I really know his habits and temper." If Huang has ideas about the script, he can bring them to the director who will not only accept his ideas but improve upon them. "Maybe because of what I say, he'll think of something even better." It is this kind of give-and-take and creative energy that makes each collaboration better than the last.

Guan and Huang's next collaboration is already in motion, "a film about killing" titled Sha Sheng. The story, which Guan has had in mind for a few years already, revolves around a death in a village that gradually reveals the different murder motives of every villager. Considering what Guan and Hu managed to do with a film about living through death, one can only imagine what surprises the director-actor tagteam will cook up for a film about death through killing.

Interviewers: Sanwei and Garden

Special Thanks to 2009 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

Published November 30, 2009

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