Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
Song Jinming (Li Yixiang) and his friend Tang Chaoyang (Wang Shuangbao, "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress") work the corruption of the new capitalistic China to their advantage. Promising a lucrative mining job to a desperate man willing to pose as one of their relatives, Song and Tang murder him, make it look like a company accident and blackmail the boss who is inevitably covering up safety violations. They're giving everyone the "Blind Shaft."
Producer/director/writer/coeditor Li Yang uses his background in documentaries to make a strong statement on the disassociative effects of capitalism and the horrors of the private mining industry in contemporary China. This 2003 Berlinale Silver Bear winner was banned in its home country, but its moral message is globally relevant.
After bilking Boss Huang (Bao Zhenjiang) of thirty thousand juan (about a few thousand dollars) for the death of a family man, Song and Tang celebrate in the city, visiting a brothel where they drink and sing "Long Live Socialism' with a karaoke machine ('Hey you hick, the words changed ages ago.' one hooker mocks). The next day Tang zeroes in on a naive 16 year-old, Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang), who wants to find his father and go back to school. Sing has misgivings and becomes spooked about the boy's resemblance to their last victim, who also had the same surname. Tang prevails and the threesome travel to a new mine and present Fengming as Song's nephew, but Fengming changes the dynamics of Song and Tang's partnership and their connected fates take unexpected paths.
Li Yang's film is a kind of realist fable, at once a record of dehumanizing conditions and the tale of a holy fool (the film was based on the novel "Sacred Wood" and its events have some basis in fact). Dwarfing his protagonists against vast, bleak gray landscapes of winding roads, Li Yang creates an almost photo negative image of Kiarostami's "The Wind Will Carry Us" in both look and feel. The mines are little better than Gulags (Song and Tang act like soldiers on military leave when they travel to town) where workers descend into hot, cramped conditions (a hell representing man's basest instincts, perhaps?) for long shifts. While Song and Tang try to subvert the system, Fengming represents the work ethic, studying on his off hours in anticipation of schooling that will improve his lot.
Wang Baoqiang projects an appealing innocence and unshakeable values (he's horrified when Tang buys him a session with a hooker) which Li Yixiang's Song responds to - after the initial spooking, more protective, nurturing tendencies rise to the fore. Wang Shuangbao is Baoqiang's steady opposite - cynical and self-serving throughout (when Fengming borrows money from Song to give to a begging student, Tang declares the beggar's claims fraudulent - the pot calling the kettle black).
'China has a shortage of everything but people.' the trio are informed by Boss Wang (Nie Weihua). "Blind Shaft" illustrates how those people are dehumanized when forced to compete for the mighty juan yet hopefully posits that goodness ultimately triumphs over greed.
Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) are a pair of itinerant coal miners always looking to make a buck, no matter the consequences. They dupe a co-worker into posing as Tang’s brother and head into the dark caverns of the mines where they murder the man then bring down the roof onto the body. With their crime safely covered up they go to the mine boss and blackmail him for hush money. They succeed in their extortion and set off to find their next victim in “Blind Shaft.”
As Tang and Song make plans as to what to do next, Tang spots a teenaged boy gazing about the streets, obviously new in town. He follows the lad and strikes up a conversation, promising the boy, Yuan (Wang Baoqiang), to help find him a job – on one condition. He must pretend to be Song’s nephew. It looks like they have their new victim but as they get to know the boy, Yuan’s naivety and simple, honest manner force them to alter their deadly plan.
“Blind Shaft” is a remarkable film on several levels: as a film story; as a social indictment of the Chinese government over the existence of thousands of unsafe, illegal coal mines in northern China; and, as a personal commitment by the director, Li Yang, and his crew to make a movie whose consequence is to be banned in his own country. There is also commentary over the state of education in communist China that forces students to finance their own schooling, not something one would expect in a so-called socialist system.
The story focuses on the two ruthless miners as they mercilessly kill their partner and gain from their murderous act. When fresh-faced and innocent Yuan arrives on the scene, you get an “Oh, no!” sensation as you realize their plans for the boy. But, things take a, thankfully, positive turn as the Yuan’s gentle demeanor grows on Song and a rift comes between the killers.
The social indictment comes in the form of the dangerous and illegal mines. Although the official government policy is that all mining operations must meet defined safety standards, graft, bribery and corruption allow these mines to remain operational. The coal miners who work these mines, desperate to earn a living, take their lives into their hands daily. Armed with the most rudimentary equipment, they descend into the shaft where the only light is from their helmets. It’s a cold and frightening world where thousands die each year as local officials accept bribes to turn a blind eye to the dangers. The corruption and deceit continue despite crackdowns ordered from the highest levels of China’s government.
The commitment by Li Yang and the rest involved in “Blind Shaft” extends to their efforts to achieve a sense of realism. The filmmakers clocked as many as 80 hours in the dark, illegal mine shafts, with one film session lasting 20 hours. This adaptation of the novel, Shenmu, by Liu Qingbang, is too much for the Chinese government to bear, with its depiction of murder, prostitution and irreverence to the political system. “Blind Shaft” is officially banned from playing in China and first time feature helmer Li Yang will likely be, too.
The acting is gritty and down and dirty. The almost Shakespearian characters of Song and Tang represent a pair of bad guys who, at first, seem to have no redeeming social value. But, as the story progresses, these ruthless characters take on dimension. Young Yuan also grows up before your eyes as Tang tries to help him become a man by buying him a prostitute’s services – a horrific experience for the impressionable teen.
Lensing, by Liu Yonghong, is crisp and cloaked in darker hues that capture the starkness of the life of itinerant coal miners. The obvious efforts and dangers endured by all in the making of “Blind Shaft” is a credit to the filmmakers. It’s a shame that the people it was made for will not be able to see this fine drama, a winner at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2003, but at least the rest of the world will get a chance. I give it an A-.
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