Blind Shaft


posted to on February 18, 2004


Tang (Wang Shuangbao) and Song (Li Yixiang) are products of the new China. Adrift in the merciless world of day labor at coolie wages, they have discovered latent entrepreneurial skills as murdering scam artists. In the opening scene of the film, set in the gloomy depths of an actual coal mine in China, they beat a fellow worker to death who is understood to be a relative from their village. Upon ascending from the pits, they claim that the dead man was killed in a cave-in and demand compensation from the boss who is all too anxious to provide hush money.


After they are presented with 30,000 yuan in compensation (about $4,000) for their just cremated "relative", they dump the ashes on the side of the road the minute they are out of sight from the mine. Upon arriving in a nearby provincial city, they wire most of the money back home and spend the rest partying with prostitutes. In a scene that conveys the caustic sensibility of director Li Yang, who made the film in secret and is an exile in Germany now, the two men begin singing the words "Long Live Socialism" to a Karaoke tune in a brothel bedroom. A whore tells them that they are singing out-of-date lyrics. When they ask what the new words are, she replies that the song is now about triumphant Americans taking over China with the dollar.


Even under the new rapacious system, there are still familial bonds based on traditional village life that are not so easy to break. One of the miners sends money home dutifully for his teenage son's school fees. Eventually they stumble across a sixteen year old boy named Wang Baoqiang (Yuan Fengming) shaping up at a day labor recruiting station on the street. His own father left home a year earlier in search of work and he cannot afford school fees. (China introduced such fees about ten years ago.)


The miners have found their next victim.


After providing him with a fake ID stating that he is 18 and training him to identify himself as their nephew, they go off to a local coal mine situated in about as foreboding a landscape ever seen on this planet. Bone-dry and windswept, it looks like something transmitted back from the Orbiter camera on Mars. Like everything else in this remarkable film, it is shot on location. The miners are all actual miners who were happy to work on the film.


According to a profile on Li Yang that appeared in the November 3, 2003 Guardian, the miners didn't mind being involved in the film so long as their work was not interrupted. Li said, "Most of them seemed amused by having us around. They had a good sense of humour, and a sort of magnanimous view of the world in general. There is a word we have in China called 'renming'. It means being sanguine. Accepting one's fate."


"Blind Shaft" excels on a number of levels. As a character study, it is driven by the contrast between the cynical scam artists, who have the raffish charm of Fagin and Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist", and the na´ve youth they take under the wing who is as trusting as Oliver Twist himself. Their kindness toward him, such as it is, evokes fattening up a turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner. While not intended to give away too much about the film's plot, let's just say that one of the miners eventually is torn between slaughtering the boy or keeping him as a pet--just like a turkey one grows too attached to.


It is also a stunning portrait of a China that is not likely to be seen in a PBS travelogue or an approved film for the export market. This is a China of prostitutes, day laborers, 19th century-like coal mines, donkey carts and dirty food stalls. It is a reality that belies all the happy talk of China catapulting into the front ranks of developed nations. It is estimated that around 7,000 workers die each year in unregulated mines. It is also the China of child labor. In some provinces sixteen year olds like Wang make up ten to twenty percent of the work force.


Now that China is imposing Victorian England type conditions on much of the population, it is not too surprising that Li Yang has responded with a Dickensian film. Perhaps in the not too distant future, there will be revolutionary activists just as there were in those troubled, unjust times.


(Unfortunately, I attended "Blind Shaft" far too late--it closes tonight in NYC. If it ever shows up on television or in DVD/Video, it is not to be missed.)