The cow is unlike any the little village has ever seen, a gigantic Western cow, a real beauty especially when compared to their own native, brown, runty cows. Niu isn’t happy to take care of this cow- he already has one that doesn’t get to eat the fancy grains that the military one does- but he does it anyway.
Then the war comes.
We actually start the film watching a shellshocked Niu deal with everything in his life literally blown to hell, destroyed and killed, save one… the cow. He meets up with it right before the Japanese descend on the area and take the cow for their own. Niu determines that he won’t let it be taken from him, so he sets out to rescue it and bring it back to its rightful owners.
Cow isn’t quite as goofy as the premise would suggest, as it’s actually played fairly straight. Not that it doesn’t have its share of humor- Bo Huang is an incredibly gifted comedic actor, especially looking as disheveled as he does here. But this is a mostly serious film with just a hint of magical realism sprinkled in. It’s about a man losing his mind in a war, after all, hardly light material, but the inclusion of the cow as such an important character helps keep things weird.
While Huang was a great choice for the film another bit of great casting, funny enough, is the cow. After some experimentation the filmmakers realized that using an animatronic cow wasn’t the way to go, so they picked up some similar-looking beasts and used them beautifully. How many films can you name that features perfect comedic timing by a cow? It’s true- the cow is as much a participant as Niu here, seemingly engaging in conversations, rolling its eyes, and showing off its emotions without it ever feeling silly, which is incredibly impressive.
The film is also impressive in that it doesn’t portray the Japanese soldiers as evil monsters, actually trying to add some humanity and reasoning to the characters and their actions. It’s something that seems to plague Chinese cinema even today (ahem, Ip Man) and it’s refreshing to see it gone from this film.
Cow is a hard one to pin down- it’s sad and surreal, funny and scary. The relatively small budgeted film did remarkably well at the Chinese box office and recently played the NYAFF, and hopefully will hit home video on these shores sometime soon.