In order to make Blind Shaft, a film about a pair of itinerant miners who profit from a gruesome extortion scheme, writer-director Li Yang risked his life. He and his crew spent countless hours seven hundred meters below the earth, filming in illegal Chinese mines, where collapses were frequent and deaths covered up by on-site crematoria. Secreting his camera and crew down the shafts without permission, Li was once caught and accused of journalism; he had to fib his way out of an encounter with the police, whose guns were aimed to protect a mine.
Since making Blind Shaft, Li faces being banned from filming in China; the film is already banned there.
In short, this film is a noble endeavor, made by a man committed to telling the story of China's desperate underclass. And, as a film, it is a tidy piece of work: well-crafted and spare, with an impeccable plot and a sharp central conflict, involving two protagonists whose unsavory relationship is triangulated by the arrival of a third. Unfortunately, Blind Shaft is also miserably bleak, with portrayals of poverty, corruption, and icy violence delivered in a near-constant stream of grays and blacks. Made with obvious integrity and the power of purpose, it's the kind of film that's easy to appreciate -- but it's hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying it.
Song Jinming (Li Yixiang) and Tang Zhaoyang (Wang Shuangbao), both members of China's struggling lower class, are partners in crime. Rather than spending long days shoveling coal in cramped and dangerous shafts, they travel from mine to mine, working only long enough to deter suspicion. Once established as bona fide employees, they kill a fellow worker whom they've brought along, having previously arranged for the third man to pose as a relative. They then disguise the murder as a death-by-mine-collapse and extort recompense from the owner. It's a clever (if brutal) scheme, and it buys the two men hotel rooms, food, and prostitutes in their stints in the city between mines. It also -- and here's where the drama deepens -- gives Song a healthy sum to send back to his son, whose schooling is apparently the only matter of importance to the man.
It's an empty life, and Tang has long since abandoned hope of anything better; he admits to caring about nothing but money. But Song has his son, and the dream of his son's education, both of which keep him at least a little tethered to the world of his feelings. The differences between the two men seem negligible until they meet Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang), a pristine, bright-eyed, sixteen-year-old boy whom they find wandering in the marketplace. Yuan's father has disappeared, having left the village in search of work, and now Yuan, without money for school, has come to the city to follow in his footsteps.
As a target, Yuan couldn't be easier: He's young, trusting, frightened, and fatherless. Tang lures him into the scheme with little trouble, promising to help the boy earn good wages at a nearby mine. But Song, the more scrupled of the two, can't quite reconcile himself to killing a boy who reminds him so much of his son -- and, we later learn, of himself. From there, the three men dance precariously around innocence and experience, numbness and sentiment, and desperation and hope.
It's a sad, sad story, no less because we know that its characters stand for untold thousands and even millions -- the Chinese peasants who have fled their villages (where duties and taxes have rendered farming unprofitable) to seek work in the cities, only to meet hardship greater than what they left. This particular brand of suffering has not received much play in contemporary cinema, surely at least partially because China's official party line is a rosy one, painting the economic expansion of the last twenty years (with the infusion of American money) as a purely positive phenomenon. Like so many of his countrymen, writer-director Li knows the other side of the story. His mission is explicit -- to expose the underside of China's new economy to the world -- and his film fulfils its purpose with admirable economy of its own.
If only it were easier to watch. Li is a documentarian; Blind Shaft is his first dramatic feature film. To tell his miners' story, he uses a documentary approach, forgoing music or stylization of any kind for a bald portrayal of the people and the events. The naked silence of this form suits the content; the film's sensibility is as bleak as that of the people it portrays. Ultimately, though, the lack of style is numbing (as relentless, no doubt, as the life of a miner). Watching, it's hard not to feel deadened, beaten down, even neglected by the film. It's a worthwhile experience, instructive and, perhaps for some, motivational. But will anyone pay for it?
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