You are very, very lucky if you do not live in China. Not because the oppressive Communist regime frequently imprisons people who voice dissent about it or that "New" China’s economic situation means regular work is scarce under its national misgovernment. No, as bad as these are, the reason why you, kamera reader, are lucky you are not a resident of China, is that you would be unable to see the excellent new film that has been made there. For Li Yang’s Blind Shaft is, or will be, showing at an arthouse near you. And if there is not a cultured and intelligent exhibitor of kinographs near enough to you to warrant you catching a great movie out one Sunday night, then I am certain that one of the more civilised digital channels are bound to be scheduling Blind Shaft a few months down the line. But if you are Chinese and living in China, you will not be able to watch the masterful adaptation of the book Shen Mu by Liu Yongchong, your recent winner of the national literary award. The same authorities who granted the source material such a prize have decided that cinema is far to immediate and influential a medium for this gritty morality tale to be told.
This story of two killers who pose as miners and cause cave-ins to steal their victims’ compensation is a depiction of a China that is going through a similar economic upheaval as the depression-era recreated in The Sting (1973) and the more recent Argentinean turmoil predicted by Nine Queens (2001). The Chinese authorities have forbidden any domestic showings of the film and a scene with the murderous conmen singing a Socialist hymn in the karaoke room of a whorehouse is probably a good indication why. Populated by nomadic criminals, coal workers and prostitutes, all of whom send money back to estranged families, who they are unable to support by staying at home, the film would merely call to mind the polemics of Steinbeck, Orwell and Dickens if director was not such a expert visual storyteller. You will become so wrapped up in the unfolding events that any political concerns that may exist (Li has claimed that criticising his country was not his intention and there is good reason for him to claim such a thing, see the word ‘imprison’ in my first paragraph) give way to a proficiently constructed humanist thriller.
Whether Li’s next film pushes him in the direction of the controversial and prohibited Ken Loach style drama or another suspenseful Hitchcockian thriller, the potential displayed here would suggest either will be a tour de force. He is a filmmaker with a strong eye for the minutiae and the metaphors. The conmen’s intended victim is called Yuan (Baoqiang Wang), the anglicised name for money. Li’s depiction of the isolation and dehumanisation of the coal tunnels and informal labour exchanges run the dual course of being both full of social critique and a suitably seedy milieu. The fact that in such an illiterate world, newspapers are used solely as insulation from the cold rural winds that envelop the quarry, illustrate a post Maoist population who are still being failed by the revolutions of education and centralisation. It is noted that Yuan, who still aspires to go back to school despite having to support his family, gains the sympathy of Song (Qiang Li), the younger killer, who regardless of academic potential was also abandoned by the system over to his financial situation. Li’s does not equate literacy and academic achievement with humanity and compassion but he shows that ambitions to edify oneself is the only route out of this itinerant circle of grime, corruption and death. As an internal divide between the two killers widens one can only hope that either sympathy or brainpower will save young Yuan’s life.
The performances are excellent, notwithstanding few of the actors being professionals, while one has to wonder how Li persuaded the quarry owners to allow their locations to be painted in such a harsh light. The reason we, a western audience, have such an impressive drama, such an unguarded expose, is through Li’s dual nationality (he has a German passport) and the international funding of his film. So it is important that we make a point of going to see Blind Shaft. Usually when you go sit down to a Mystic River over a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (both 2003) you are showing the distributors and money men you prefer intellectual, measured cinema to churned out, thoughtless hackery. If you don’t go see Blind Shaft, it will not only mean investment in another directionless money grabbing horror rehash over an international work but that you are proving to the box office analysts that the world has no eyes and ears for a tremendous new cinematic voice like Li Yang’s. You have the power to say; "This a director whose work we want to see, so invest boatloads in his next venture." It is your duty, kamera readers, to go out, buy a ticket, be entertained and informed. Now that isn’t such a chore, is it?