An Underground Film with a Hollywood Bite: Li Yang’s “Blind Shaft”

Blind Shaft

In “Blind Shaft,” Li’s characters toil in China’s highly dangerous coal mines

In an interview with the film scholar Michael Berry, Chinese director Li Yang said of his first feature, the gripping 2003 thriller Blind Shaft:

While working on the screenplay, I kept thinking of ways to break the mold of what art films can be. …[W]hen I was studying film in Europe, I kept thinking about what it is about Hollywood movies that allows them to conquer audiences around the world. Although you can say that a lot of Hollywood movies are shallow, it is undeniable that they also excel in several areas… I decided that the film I was going to make had to have a fast rhythm. (Excerpt from Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers by Michael Berry)

True to his word, Blind Shaft has the punch-you-in-the-face pulp vigor (and the muckraking political anger) of Sam Fuller, or the Billy Wilder who made Ace in the Hole. In the opening scene, migrant workers Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao), descend into one of China’s many illegal, unregulated, and highly dangerous coal mines, where thousands of laborers die each year. A third worker, who has agreed to pose as Tang’s brother, toils alongside them. Suddenly, Song and Tang spring into action, killing their co-worker and faking a cave-in to cover up their crime. Then they demand settlement money from the mine owner; once the payoff has been made the scammers move on, looking for their next mine and their next victim.The story pushes forward with relentless intensity and mounting suspense – but Li has more on his mind than simply “putting the audience through it,” as Hitchcock used to say. The son of theater artists who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Li studied filmmaking first in Beijing and then in Germany, where he began his career directing a series of documentaries about China. Blind Shaft was adapted from a novella by Liu Qingbang and the director has said that what interested him most about the story wasn’t the plot or characters but its depiction of a China undergoing massive convulsions in its rapid transformation from socialism to capitalism. His film uses the thriller genre as the vehicle to deliver a stinging social critique.The world of Blind Shaft is one in which any meaningful connection between traditional values and the moral order they’re supposed to represent has been severed. When Song develops scruples about their crimes, Tang reminds him that the money will pay for their children to go to school so they’ll never have hellish jobs like coal mining. The veneration of family and education becomes a justification for murder.In Li’s view of modern China, ‘respect for authority’ simply means that the lower down you are on the food chain, the less your life is worth. In a chilling early scene, the mine boss who’s being conned by Song and Tang mulls over whether it would be easier to pay them off or kill them. He decides on the former only because hiring dirty cops to rub them out would cost more. The communist/collectivist ideals that have guided public morality for generations are now a fading memory: when Song and Tang sing a socialist anthem in a karaoke bar, a group of young prostitutes reprise the song but replace the insipid inspirational lyrics with a cynical ode to filthy lucre.

Li Yang

Li Yang with the Silver Bear he won for “Blind Shaft” at the Berlin International Film Festival

Unsurprisingly, Li made Blind Shaft without approval from the state Film Bureau. He raised the budget by combining his own funds with financing from Germany and Hong Kong. Through personal connections he was able to gain access to several illegal mines for shooting (and the movie benefits immensely from the semi-documentary feel of these scenes). Although the finished film was banned from being publicly screened in China, it went on to play at several major festivals, winning awards at Berlin and Tribeca. Perhaps Blind Shaft’s path to international acclaim was eased by its journalistic “relevance” at a time when China is much on everyone’s minds, but it has a narrative power that transcends its moment.Like the classic American films noirs it so resembles, the movie fuses great pop storytelling with a corrosively bleak vision of human nature. From first scene to last, it lives up to Li’s ambitions, as expressed to Michael Berry:

I had been thinking for a long time about what makes a good movie. A good movie should have a tiger’s head, a pig’s body, and a leopard’s tail: that is, the beginning should be powerful, with a bite like a tiger; the body of the film should be rich like a pig; and the ending should have the muscle of a leopard’s tail.

Nelson Kim has written and directed several award-winning short films. He teaches film at Columbia University, Fordham University, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and is a regular contributor to the website Hammer To Nail.

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