English Title: Blind Shaft
Country of Origin: China
Studio: Édition Paradis Distribution
Director: Li Yang
Producer(s): Li Yang
Cinematographer: Liu Yonghong
Art Director: Yang Jun
Runtime: 92 minutes
Blind Shaft begins in a coalmine and with an exchange between three miners, one of whom is asked whether he is homesick. When he responds that he misses his son very much, the miner whom we will come to know as Tang Zhaoyang replies that it is his intention to send the man home that very day. The puzzled miner is given just enough time to register surprise – ‘But I just arrived’ – before being brutally murdered by Tang. Tang Zhaoyang and his accomplice, Song Jinming, it soon becomes apparent, fake familial ties with miners they recruit, only to murder them for the purpose of claiming compensation from the owners of the private mines in Shanxi province, where many of China’s miners toil. Tang and Song go on to recruit a young, vulnerable 16 year old, Yuan Fengming, who turns out to be the very son discussed in the film’s opening scene. Song expresses doubts about recruiting Yuan from the outset and begins to resist the plan to kill him as he begins to discern family resemblances between the young man and the last victim. As Tang begins to ask the very questions with which the film began, he unexpectedly beats Song over the head with a shovel, but not fatally so. Song reciprocates as Tang corners Yuan. Both Song and Tang collapse, leaving Yuan to flee the mine just seconds before a planned explosion. In the final scenes Yuan receives compensation for the deaths of his ‘relatives’ and observes the smoke curling toward the sky from a chimney at the crematorium where their bodies are being burnt.
Blind Shaft, which won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2003, is an example of what is variously referred to, not without controversy, as independent film-making, underground film-making, and Sixth Generation film-making in China (Pickowicz & Zhang 2006; Zhen 2007). Banned in China and shot under circumstances involving considerable risks to the film-maker (Xan Brooks 2003), Blind Shaft draws attention, through what is virtually a documentary-style approach, to the plight of the many migrant workers who toil in dangerous and illegal mines to meet the needs of a new China defined by globalization, urbanization, savage capitalism, and an ever widening gap between rich and poor. The utterance of a brutal boss – ‘China lacks everything except manpower’ – efficiently articulates the exploitative attitudes that characterize, not only those who own and run the illegal mines, but the many local policemen and officials who condone their activities and profit from them, through various forms of corruption. Although the three main characters – Tang, Song and Yuan – represent a spectrum of types, ranging from the cynical to the properly moral, there are moments when their thoughts and actions converge. Each of these characters has a family to support and the hopes and aspirations that they have for these individuals are ultimately very similar. The differences arise in the means that Tang, Song and Yuan embrace in order to support their families. What is indicted ultimately is the exploitative and corrupt system that pits all against all in a brutal fight for survival and that leaves those who are neither canny nor cynical, and for whom moral norms still have some genuine force, both vulnerable and unprotected.
Author of this review: Mette Hjort