Story: During the Second Sino-Japanese War Niu Er (Huang Bo), a simple farmer, is entrusted with an important task by the village elder. He
is supposed to protect a dutch cow, a present from the foreign powers, from the invading Japanese and bandits roaming the area. The special thing
about the cow is that it gives a lot more milk than any of the local cows which makes it indispensable for feeding the people wounded on the
battlefield. That is because there is foodshortage and the war isn't about to make a stop in front of Niu Er's village. However, the farmer is
unwilling to take this responsibility. Only after he is promised Jiu'er (Yan Ni) as his wife, a sassy widow he is having his eyes on for some time
already, he complies. Eventually, the Japanese invade and when Niu Er regains consciousness everyone in the village is dead. Only the cow has survived
since the concerned villagers hid it. Niu Er wants to escape with the cow but another Japanese unit occupies the village and he has to leave it
behind. After the unit has left again and only a handfull of soldiers is holding the line Niu Er decides to free the cow which is now looked after
by the Japanese...
Review: "Cow" just had to be an impressive film, if just for the simple fact alone that you don't expect much of a movie with that title.
But in fact the premise is chosen very wisely. It is unnecessary to bring the atrocities of war to the big screen in epic battles while swinging the
moral hammer if you can do all of that a lot more subtle and quiet. "Cow" manages to do just that and therefore goes a lot deeper than many other
war movies. A simple man and his love for a cow have to face serious trials in a gruesome world. What's catching the eye is that the strong realism
of the movie is standing in an interesting contrast to the more fantastic love story. That is because with time we learn to understand that Niu Er
sees his dead wife in the cow and furthermore the cow is naturally to be seen symbolically as well, even though she also has been provided with her
own character by the screenwriters and thus looks very animated. "Cow" is an insightful war drama with that special something.
The impressive cinematography of the movie can instantly create a feeling of enthusiasm. Being held in shades of grey and with HD-sharpness you can make out every detail of the lovingly decorated sets, especially the village can be convincing as a ruin devastated by a cruel war whereas the colors of the grey scale underline the drabness. The panical camera directing at the beginning only reflects Niu Er's horror and disorientation, as the film goes on the events are captured with a steady hand, though, except for a few action scenes maybe. What sticks with us the most is one particuliar scene at the beginning in which we see the villagers burnt and with cramped limbs lying in a ditch. Still, the Japanese aren't just portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters but fortunately there is a more differentiated picture drawn of them. In the end it is the war itself that makes them monsters, but of course this can still be no excuse for all their barbarity.
However, "Cow" isn't just a war drama that picks one individual in the chaos of war and tells his story in a tearjerking manner, the film is more of a realistic look at the difficult time of the Second Sino-Japanese War paired with an oftentimes surrealistic seeming story around the love of a man towards his cow in which the soul of his wife might be present. Added to that is an unobtrusive amount of black humour that stands as the final touch on this exceedingly inventive overall picture of the film. The tactfulness of director Guan Hu always makes this instable seeming mix work out just right. In the unfolding story of the film there are occasionaly flashbacks inserted that tell us about Niu Er's life in the village and that help drawing out his character more. During these moments we also get to know about his feelings for Jiu'er and the circumstances under which he got the cow in the first place.
The narrational structure of the film is chosen very well and there is never any boredom striking the viewer. Moreover, it is obvious when we get to see a flashback and when the movie is showing the present. Sadly, that changes towards the end when the movie switches between the different time levels too confusingly and also has some issues concerning the editing. Moreover, the inserted propaganda video of the origin of the dutch cow seems rather out of place. The movie is also a bit propagandistic during one scene when a spokesperson of the People's Liberation Army tells Niu Er that they are the ones reigning the country now and that they would never take anything away from the peasants... Concerning that topic you might want to look in a few history books. Apart from that the film seems more bumpy towards the end than necessary, but luckily that doesn't have much negative impact on the overall quality of "Cow". Most of the time director Guan Hu is just conveying what he wants to and he does so through Niu Er and the situations he ends up in make him look more and more three-dimensional as the film moves on.
Huang Bo isn't really a good-looking fellow, he truely embodies a farmer which also affects his simple way of thinking, but the farmer has his heart at the right place and somehow always manages to slip through the Japanese's fingers. Huang Bo is often crossing the border of overacting but strangely enough he even has to for his role as only this way he can convey his character convincingly. Since Huang is more or less - putting the cow aside for a moment - carrying the movie all on his own he also deserves big praise for his acting achievement. He simply seems to be made for this role. Not everybody manages to make even a partner in shape of a cow look great in the acting department thanks to his expertise!
"Cow" didn't have that big of a budget but you don't see that at all. Finally, the audience gets an inventive war drama that centers around people and manages to be entertaining at the same time. "Cow" is therefore one of those insider tips that you shouldn't miss.