Blind Shaft(Li, 2003)

Humanity in the way of industry.

The first act of violence in Blind Shaft is abrupt and unsettling. Three miners are on a break, sitting in a secluded area of the mine to have a drink. They refer to one another as “bro” and one man talks about what it’s like back home and the lonely women there. Suddenly one of the men, Song, thumps this man in the head with a pick, killing him. At first you’re not even sure it happened; there’s no warning and the camera doesn’t stylize the violence. Its not just the act itself, it’s the banality of it that gets to you. Song and the third man in the conversation, his partner Tang, are con-men of the nastiest sort, and this is just another day at the office for them. They pretend their victim was family, killed by a cave-in, and get paid off by the boss of the mines to keep it quiet. Once paid, they move on to the next illegally run mine, picking up another rube who will pretend to be a family member with the intention of killing him and getting paid off again.

Their next mark is a young 18-year-old kid, whose father abandoned him to find work six months previous. He has left school to earn money and find his father a sad but noble quest. His naive and trusting nature stirs sympathy in Song, making him apprehensive to go through with the murder. Of course this uncharacteristic compassion doesn’t go unnoticed by Tang, who spends the movie reminding Song that the kid is nothing - just like them. This rift between the two con-men is not only the source of drama but also raises questions as to whether a man who has been so horrible can actually be redeemable.

Blind Shaft is a film that transcends the culture and boundaries of China. It’s at once a story about capitalism and about humanity’s lack of respect towards itself. The first mine Boss doesn’t really care about the dead miner, he wants him the hell out of there and forgot, but his lack of compassion doesn’t stop with others, it even applies to himself. When his payoff is 2,000 yuan short, he offers to cut off two fingers to make up the difference. You don’t doubt that he’d do it, either, the fatalism among all the characters is clear. The second boss, when asked why he can treat the workers unfairly boils it down to a fairly simple line “China has a shortage of everything but people”. You could just as well remove China and replace it with “the world”. That line actually fuels Tang and Song’s personal philosophy that they use to justify their vile scams: “Why care for them if no one cares for us?” It’s a pretty tragic viewpoint, but the clarity in which this world is illustrated makes you understand it and even sympathize.

Don’t confuse sympathy with approval though. The two get paid pretty well from their schemes but the money doesn’t better their situation. They go whoring, sing karaoke, and eat pretty well,  and yet they’re continually covered in dirt, wearing the same clothes, and surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Tang and Song may be working the system that created them but it’s clearly not paying off.

Li Yang, who directed the film and adapted it from the Liu Qingbang novel “Sheimu”, gets the most out of untrained actors and his low budget production. Shooting with a 16mm hand-held camera in a cinema verite style, the film is filled with the kinetic energy you find in French New Wave films, but the whimsy and romance of France is replaced with the desolate and downtrodden locales in the poorer areas of China’s vast landscape. The minimalism and intimacy of the production effectively illustrate the hopelessness of being deep in the mines, a place that posed legitimate dangers to the actors and crew during shooting. There are some great images found here, my favorite being the bright light coming down the shaft that gets eclipsed as people try to make their way out.

Recently I watched a documentary called Side by Side, in which many very important people in the film industry debated digital formats vs. film. While incredibly fascinating, I find the digital vs. film debate to be frivolous, an attempt to dictate the right way to make a movie. 16mm, the film format used for Blind Shaft, was considered to be the amateur’s film stock reserved for experimenting or, gasp, lowly television programs. This obsession with the tools used to make the art is detrimental to the artist, using the newest advances in technology to cover up how shallow the product is. At the same time it creates a false identity as to what constitutes a “real film”, making would-be filmmakers scared to create using what they have for fear that their work will be looked at as “amateurish”. Was it shot in digital or film? Is it high-def? Who cares?  I mention this because Blind Shaft is a strong example of how an engaging story that challenges the viewer rises above the limitations and biases imposed by “the pros” against a low budgets and “inferior” film formats. It’s not the tool it’s the hand that guides them, and Li Yang proves that with Blind Shaft.