reviewed by Lester Pimentel
illegal mines of China produce two items in great quantity: coal
and dead miners. Rarely does a week go by without news of a tragic
mining accident in which scores die. Blind Shaft, written
and directed by Lang Yi, tells the story of two men who exploit
the hazardous conditions at these mines. Part exposé, part
psychological thriller, Blind Shaft succeeds bravely
in the former, but stumbles in the latter.
opens with a menacing shot of coal mounds in the cold grey of
daybreak. Waiting for the mines to open, migrant workers Song
(Li Yixiang), Tang (Wang Shuangbao), and a worker they’ve
just recruited to pose as Tang’s brother are sharing a cigarette
before descending into the bowels of a pitch-dark mine. “Do
you miss your family?” Song and Tang ask their new colleague.
When he begins to talk about the children he’s left behind,
he is struck in the head with a shovel. Song and Tang then collapse
the mine on him and rush to safety. Feigning emotional distress
over their ‘brother’s accidental’ death, they
cut a deal with the mine owner who pays them to keep their mouths
shut and skip town.
pockets lined, they wander into a nearby town where they rendezvous
with young, probably underage, prostitutes. We learn that Tang
is ruthless and selfish, relishing his exploits at the whorehouse,
while Song, is a family man with the stirrings of a conscience.
Their differences are thrown into sharper relief by 16-year-old
Yuan Fengming, played by Wang Baoqiang. In order to provide for
his family after his father’s disappearance, Yang has become
an itinerant worker. His unsuspecting mien invites trouble. With
promises of good money mining coal in exchange for posing as Song’s
nephew, Song and Tang convince a mine owner to hire the three
of them. Yuan, whose naiveté is a little overwrought, proves
industrious as well as annoying, particularly to Song, who becomes
something of a father figure to the young boy. Their bond will
complicate the moral equation and foreshadow a somewhat predictable
climax: a plot twist in which the bad guys get their just desserts.
film noir back from oblivion for this gritty enterprise. The ominous
backdrop is supplied by the crumbling coal mines in the remote
mountains of China. Though
the film doesn’t quite work as a thriller, it exposes the
appalling loss of life in the mines and provides a searing critique
of the breakneck industrialization that drives China’s ever-growing
economy, belying the official news about China’s economic
miracle. Yuan is emblematic of the contradictions of modern-day
Chinese life. He is a dutiful student who wants to go college,
but can’t afford it. In a poignant scene, the three of them
are in a bazaar when Yuan stops to donate some of his meagre earnings
to a young boy so he can attend school; in China, education is
the best answer to poverty.
Lang Yi offers a layered critique of modern China while avoiding
the heavy solemnity his themes seem all too ripe for. Yuan’s
sexual immaturity helps to leaven the film. Whether it’s
his disastrous first night with a prostitute, or his embarrassing
communal bath experience, Yuan emerges as an endearing and fully
realized character with whom we sympathize, whose humanity rises
above surroundings marked by privation and death.