Director: Li Yang.
Since as far back as The Great Train Robbery (1903), and passing through the final shot of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the fourth-wall-breaking wink in Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games, the movies have a long history of daring us to look evil right in the eye and judge its amorality.
Take a look at the characters above, from Li Yang’s 2003 feature debut, Blind Shaft. Will you have the stomach to follow them on a 90-minute odyssey into the pits of man’s moral and existential abyss, a most coal-black tragicomic tour of China’s social underbelly? For the two men standing either side of that cherubic youngster in the middle are serial murderers. In a country where, for the vast majority, survival is grueling and life a cheap commodity, they have worked out an unscrupulous scheme to make ends meet. They travel around China, from one unregulated coal mine to another, mixing with the hordes of migrant workers in each new town until they find one gullible and desperate enough to agree to pass off as their relative at the mine. These unsuspecting poor souls are only too glad to oblige, relieved to finally have work.
A few days later however, the two men murder these patsies, make it look like a mining accident and, pretending to be aggrieved relatives, they extort money from the coal bosses who’d rather pay off than risk being closed down. And so, on our two conniving Chinese Sisyphuses go, onward to the next coal mine and the next hapless victim.
When the film starts, it takes a while for events to sink in, to figure out this indeed is a scam, and just how grim it is. The filmmaker Li Yang, Chinese-born but German-educated, directs proceedings with the cynical eye of an outsider looking in on his purported homeland, which he did not in fact have official permission to film — Blind Shaft has never been screened in China as a result. Yet, the film feels distinctly connected to a sense of national identity, no matter how pessimistic (it is patriotic after all to sound the alarm at whatever might be reprehensible about one’s country), particularly when his characters chew the fat on state-of-the-nation diatribes, or in one mine owner’s chilling comment that “China lacks everything but people”. A disregard for life which can’t help remind me of the mining syndicate hitman’s quip in McCabe & Mrs Miller.
As you’d expect of such an underground film and subject matter, Blind Shaft is aesthetically gritty. The greys and blacks of this moral wasteland are filmed with a constantly hand-held camera, and the verité immediacy is reinforced by the lack of any score. Yet, the film departs from the typical raw social drama in key ways. Firstly, amid a cast of predictably non-professional actors, the two murderous conmen are played to scarily naturalistic perfection by trained performers, Li Yixiang and Wang Shuangbao. (Ironically, Wang Baoqiang, who was discovered to play the naive boy, would go on acting after this and a decade later gave a diametrically opposed performance as a cold-blooded murderer in A Touch of Sin). Secondly, the narrative is genuinely gripping, and far funnier than it has any right to be. Writer-director Li Yang grounds his characters’ dialogue and behaviour in vernacular, often comically vulgar realities. Miners exchange colourful insults and there’s a darkly humorous visit to a brothel, which additionally manages to remind us that these prostitutes too are one more form of exploited migrant worker.
Of course, for any good narrative drama to occur the conmen’s routine needs to encounter a snag — duly delivered by their next find, a 16-year-old lad as naively innocent and generally good-hearted as any rural Chinese hick could be if he was trying to steal our breath as we ask with incredulity: surely not, surely they won’t do it this time? A question which at least one of the two brigands seems to be asking himself, especially when the boy inadvertently touches an emotional nerve by reminding him of his younger self. But his partner keeps coaxing him out of his qualms: “If you pity this boy, who will pity you?”, he repeatedly asks. The answer is nobody. These two men, clearly fallen by the wayside since China’s rapid acceleration from socialist economy to cut-throat capitalism and resorting to a cut-throat life themselves, have never had any sympathy coming their way. So, can the arrival of this boy in their plans be the source of their moral redemption? Will he bring to the fore all the ideas about honour and comradeship they spout off? Or is he one more helpless canary who must die for their survival?
The drama zips along with momentum and suspense, elevating Li’s debut above standard realist fare, so I’ll let you track this highly recommended film and find out what happens for yourself. Blind Shaft is one of the great works of early 21st century Chinese cinema, operating alongside those by Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing as a report on the forgotten souls churned by China’s relentless economic and demographic realities.