Blind Shaft
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

To many of us in the West, modern China remains as elusive as ever: fourteen years after Tiananmen Square, the Party is still in charge, but the economy is burgeoning. A Chinese man goes into space, while social woes multiply. A Chinese writer wins a Nobel Prize, but his books are largely unknown in his own country. Chinese films — now, there's a litmus test for a society. Only recently, a lot of good stuff has been coming out of China — including Platform, Not One Less, and Together — though many Chinese films are unlikely to get nationwide distribution either in China or America (for completely different reasons). A good feature film can tell you more about the society than pages of op-eds and volumes of analysts' reports.

Blind Shaft continues in the vein of these films, and takes it one step further: the village-and-Beijing world of Not One Less and especially Together is pure Disney in comparison with one of unregulated coal mines. Blind Shaft shows us pure early capitalism, a dog-eat-dog world with managers' thugs, no unions, and no labor safety rules. Viewed through the lens of Marxism, this is a society ripe for a Socialist revolution. Most strikingly, this is a society where cruelty is the rule and mercy is an exception. I haven't seen anything so bleak since The Sent-Down Girl, a horrifying memoir of Cultural Revolution, but at least the latter was set in the past — Blind Shaft is now.

Li Yang's direction (this is his debut feature) is most impressive from Frame One: the coal mine is hell, perfect geometrical shapes in cold gray. Misery coats the screen as three miners, shivering in the wind in their ragged work clothes, take their last drags on a cigarette before heading into the mine. Slowly, we descend with them in the shaft; slowly, the sky disappears, and we plunge into darkness. As our eyes get used to the dark, we discern the Paleolithic tools, the carts, and a horse — this is England, 19th century. And, before the hopeful liberals among us have had a chance to immerse ourselves in the coal-dust-covered proletarian solidarity and hear out their dreams of a better tomorrow — bang! A few crude but innocent remarks about home villages — and one miner delivers a deadly blow to the other's head. Instantly, the body is carried to the side, arranged to look like an accident. This is not your let's-get-rid-of-the-Czar Dovzhenko, and this is not your bicycle-stealing De Sica. This is post-Socialist Realism of 21st century China.

Long negotiations with the mine manager follow — the latter wants to hush-hush the accident and simply pay off the victim's family. And who represents the family? One of the killers, who seems to be the victim's brother — what? Where is the family history, the Rich-Man-Poor-Man rhetoric? Slowly, as the bazaar-like haggling proceeds, it dawns on you — it's all a scam. There are no brothers. There is no family waiting for the body. (There is a family, somewhere, but they'll never know.) There's only $3,600 to be split fifty-fifty (typically, the negotiator keeps a couple of hundred to himself). Among these thieves, there is no honor.

Now what? Are they going to blow the take on fast women and champagne? Uh-uh. That is, sure, they pick up a couple of girls at a karaoke-parlor-cum-whorehouse — and one of them, Song, regrets it: "I'd rather send the 100 yuans to my family." They're Chinese peasants, no different from their victim — but they send the bulk of their proceeds to their families. And then they move on to the next victim — a baby-faced 16-year-old Yuan, literally straight from the farm.

Li Yang does a masterful job fleshing out the two partners in crime. Tang is older and more hardcore, without any illusions whatsoever; Song still dreams of a good life and schooling for his own son, whom he misses badly. Thus it doesn't arrive as a surprise that, as the two play the youngster by enveloping him in a mesh of lies, it is Song — the kid's putative "uncle" — who begins to have second thoughts. Moreover, he suspects that Yuan may be the son of a man they just killed. "We will be killing off his family line." You don't need a Mensa IQ to know that things will go wrong. In thrillers, hesitation is a recipe for disaster. And so Song keeps postponing the murder, ostensibly to give Yuan his first taste of booze, his first taste of a woman. (No viewer will be surprised to see the kid running into the hooker on the line to send money home. Miners, criminals, hookers, victims — all good family people.) And then comes the ending, which would be unfair to reveal — but it's quite a switch. Suffice it to say that the director briefly lights the lamp of hope in hell and then quickly puts it out.

The film is not without its problems: as we get to the denouement, the pace drops to a crawl, bogging down in the scheme — Let's Make Yuan a Man before Killing Him. The task of the director is not made easier by the relentless everyday physical misery of miners' lives — the dirt, the grime, the lack of even minimal hygiene — but also by the victim's exaggerated innocence, which is never as exciting as sin (it pays off at the end; but by then, who cares). This is a built-in problem — surely we don't want this to turn into a Smell-of-a-Woman cascade of single-malts-and-Ferraris — but, after a while, it does produce in the viewer an impatience that the director cannot have planned.

There is a brilliant, revealing scene when Tang savors singing an old Party hymn, with references to noble labor and bright future, in the karaoke bar, only to be told by the giggling hookers that in the popular version the lyrics were changed to their opposites — now it's all about money and Coca-Cola. The nostalgia for the kolkhoz of yesterday is so real in Tang's eyes — you want to tell the girl to shut up already. Let the man have his moment; he'll have to go on killing tomorrow. Because his family needs the money — just like yours does.

Blind Shaft is a frightening, emotionally scary film, and an extraordinary debut, that will cast a layer of ice on your heart. It is remarkable that it works both as a human drama and a social tragedy — a feat few artists can pull off. Mr. Yang succeeds admirably.

[rating: 3.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Kino International
Movie Web site: Blind Shaft



Photos courtesy of Kino International.