Blind Shaft: 2003 AFI Film Festival New Asian Classics Highlight
In Li Yang's "Blind Shaft," featured in the New Asian Classics series at this year's AFI Film Festival, a character matter of factly states: "There is a shortage of everything but people in China." The film goes on to deliver an unwavering look at corruption and materialism in China in the aftermath of the entry of capitalism, putting into play a story where the value of human life is weighed.
The film opens with Tang and Song in one of the many dangerous, unregulated coal mines in the north of China. They are accompanied by Chaou, Tang's "brother," an unsuspecting man they have lured with the promise of making good money. After they kill him underground, under the perfect cover of a mine collapsing, they are able to extort 30,000 yuan from the mine owner in return for not alerting the government officials. In an aside, an underling asks the owner why he doesn't just kill the two, and he responds it would cost at least three times as much to pay off the police.
With the all-pervasive cheapness of human life established, the film takes a turn when Song reveals he is sending money back home to pay for his16 year old's schooling. Minutes later, Tang returns having picked up an innocent 16 year old named Feng Ming. Is it a coincidence? Song is furious and does not wish to take the young boy. Tang see through him, telling him he is thinking of his own son, but reminds him that there is no one in the world looking out for his good. Song relents unwillingly, but tensions rise in the partnership as Song struggles with killing the young boy. As the two men become acquainted with the innocent Feng Ming, who begins to express a heartbreaking affection and gratitude towards the older men, Tang, the older of the two partners, emerges as empty of remorse or compassion. Song manages to gain time by appealing to his partner with different reasons, some of which are accepted and others rejected. For example, when Song discovers, to his horror, that Feng Ming's father was the man they had just killed, Tang is not at all dissuaded from killing the young boy, even when Song argues that they will end the family line. However, when Song states that they can't kill Feng Ming because he has never drunk alcohol and is still a virgin, Tang relents and they both pitch in to get him a prostitute. As the danger rises for Feng Ming, it's unclear what side will win out, and possibilities for the crucial moment multiply. Will Song corrupt Feng Ming and team up with him against Tang? Will he save him by killing his partner? Are Song and Tang being deceived by Feng Ming? In a clever reversal of expectations, we are led to a moment where we even Feng Ming's innocence is suspect.
Li Yang has created a powerful film, where we feel what is at stake with the loss of innocence. In this way, though Feng Ming's actions could seem maudlin, they don't come off as such. He becomes an image of innocence, and even if only a possiblity, we come to weigh the value of such innocence. Song emerges as a tragic figure torn between his past and present.
During the Q&A session at the AFI Film Festival, Li Yang stated that he had to use personal friendships in the government and coal mining industry to make the film. He managed to film under hazardous conditions: a spark from lighting equipment could have set off an explosion at anytime; crew members deserted the project when faced with the real threat of the situation. Fortunately, his actors remained loyal, and the film wrapped two days before the mine they had been shooting in actually collapsed. In a strange twist, actual coal miners played out the situation shown in the film: deaths occurred and miners were paid off to keep quiet.
Li Yang stated that he did not change his original vision of the story in the face of censorship, and at present the film is banned in China. The film seemed to indicate Italian neo-realist influences with its humanistic theme, as well as its use of non-professional actors in two of the three lead roles. However, when asked to confirm these influences at the festival Q&A session, Yang seemed to answer another question entirely, the original question lost in a somewhat surreal exchange with the translator. While we may never know the answer, what's clear is that "Blind Shaft" is an uncompromsing film offering us a exploration of evil and innocence in the depths of the earth, where life literally and figuratively keeps its tenuous balance upon a fulcrum.
November 16, 2003