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Modern China as a sinister scheme with no escape

Banned in its director's native country, 'Blind Shaft' is a gripping, often despairing vision of a society undergoing wrenching change.

March 19, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

In the taut, palpably unnerving thriller "Blind Shaft," a couple of grifters murder for profit and a few surplus kicks. As the pair hustle across country picking off victims as casually as other men brush off lint, they come across as the very definition of "yeggs" -- down-and-dirty criminals of the sort that once filled the pages of old-school pulp fiction. (They're scarily hard-boiled yeggs at that.) With cigarettes clenched in their teeth and eyes emptied of soul, these grifters could have stepped out of a Jim Thompson novel, but as it happens they're straight out of modern China.

The story opens with the grifters about to swoop down for a lucrative kill. Part of China's hungry new entrepreneur class, Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) have hit on a scheme that ensures them fast, hefty payouts from the gangsters who run the country's innumerable illegal coal mines. Using an innocent third man as the hook, Song and Tang concoct a potential scandal that forces unsuspecting mine bosses to hand over thousands in cash in exchange for the two men's silence. Neither the innocent third parties nor the guilty-as-sin mine bosses know that the grifters are con men, or that the pair have pulled the same con in other mines. Everyone plays his part; some people die for their trouble, while others get paid.

Written and directed by Li Yang, "Blind Shaft" makes for gripping, merciless drama. A newcomer to fiction filmmaking, Li has a handful of documentaries on his resume (none of which I've seen), and he brings a tangible true grittiness to this story. The camerawork looks entirely hand-held, which gives the film a documentary vibe; but unlike most contemporary nonfiction movies, "Blind Shaft" was shot in 35mm film. The hand-held cinematography gives the imagery intimacy, while the celluloid gives it velvety texture, a dualism that's most evident in those scenes in which the only evident light sources are the lamps atop the men's helmets. There's an ugly beauty to these images of the miners flashing in and out of the shadows, and an unmistakable sense that when you get this deep there is no exit, literally or existentially.

Like some of the best Chinese films of the last 10 years -- including those from wunderkind Jia Zhang-ke -- "Blind Shaft" presents a harsh, often despairing vision of a country undergoing wrenching change. According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Jia was forced to shelve a project about an illegal coal mine after running into trouble with authorities. In an interview with the same paper, Li explained that the only reason he succeeded in making his coal mine movie was because he shot the entire movie illegally. The upshot was that -- as is true of many of the best films shot in China -- the movie was banned. Li currently lives in Hong Kong and in Germany, where he studied filmmaking and where, in 2003, "Blind Shaft" won the prestigious Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The realpolitik of the modern film world can be as deep as the mines in "Blind Shaft" and often just as difficult to negotiate. For well over a year, Li traveled from one international film festival to another with his movie serving as a de facto ambassador of cinematic inspiration and DIY creativity for a country that refuses to acknowledge him or his work. His mother can't see "Blind Shaft" because she lives in China. But here in the U.S. all you have to do is slap down some cold capitalist cash and buy a ticket. It's no wonder that when Tang tries to sing a song from the old communist days -- a rewritten ditty that now rejoices in capitalism for enabling the glorious "sexual climax of socialism" -- he looks so profoundly lost.

*

'Blind Shaft'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Brutal violence, illicit sex, partial nudity, adult language

Li Yixiang...Song

Wang Shuangbao...Tang

Wang Baoqiang...Yuen Fengming

An Jing...Xiao Hong

Bao Zhenjiang...Boss Huang

A Kino International and Landmark Theatres presentation, released by Kino International. Writer-director-producer Li Yang. Adapted from the novel "Shenmu" by Liu Qingbang. Director of photography Liu Yonghong. Sound recordist Wang Yu. Art director Yang Jun. Editors Li Yang, Karl Riedl. Costume designer Wang Xiaoyan. Set designer Zhang Jianjun. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles.

Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 281-8223.

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