Blind Way (China, 2018)

More than ten years after his controversial features Blind Shaft (2003) and Blind Mountain (2007), Li Yang returns with Blind Way, the final chapter of his underclass trilogy. Li’s camera has always focused on the dark spots of modern society, such as abducted women and children, so as to uncover the unreported criminality in China’s remote countryside where are ignored by public views and social elites. However, compared to his previous works, Blind Way is soulless. It is conceivable that, at some point in the process, the director has had deal with the censorship courteously by extensively reediting initial subplots or removing sensitive content entirely.

This film depicts a father-and-daughter story about a fake blind man, Zhao Liang (played by Li himself), and a trafficked blind girl, Jing Jing (Du Hanmeng). Zhao is a broke songwriter who pretends to be blind in order to peddle trinkets in a subway station. He encounters Jing Jing and brings her to home out of pity. Jing Jing is an undocumented, blind, infantile beggar. She has escaped from the snakehead couple of a begging gang, who she calls mother and father. Actually, Jing Jing and the other disabled children who call the felon couple “mother” and “father” were kidnapped or trafficked from non-developed areas, or just sold by their parents to cover debt. After resettling in cities with their “new parents”, these children are forced to beg. These felons have gradually formed gangs and exploit people’s sympathy through their scams.

Zhao and Jing Jing’s relationship develops rapidly from repulsion to interdependence, two marginalized people experiencing the delights of carefree life before Zhao is stabbed by the vengeful snakehead. However, if we are expected to accept this film as realist, unbelievable plot contrivances make it hard to do so. For instance, Zhao and Jing are separated and reunited in not just one dramatic development, but on three occasions. During the second instance, Zhao looks for Jing by rambling on the sideway aimlessly. Then, the begging children (of which Jing is one) and the snakehead just happen come into his sight. After that, Zhao just loots a vehicle, follows the van of snakehead to their hut, and rescues Jing. The entire process seems to be planned in advance, with Zhao’s decisive decision-making and silent behavior like that of a veteran spy. In addition, the final redemption is also an opportunistic subplot. Zhao has found Jing’s biological parents without any reliable clues. He then drives back to Jing’s previous house where he is notified that Jing was resold to the snakehead with a higher price, but comes across against the snakehead’s van again at a gas station. Once again, Zhang is somehow able to save Jing from three men.

All the behavioral motives of the protagonists are inconsistent. At their initial meeting in an underground passage, Zhao accosts Jing and promises to provide shelter. There is a close-up to show Zhao’s face and gestures as he offers mercy to Jing Jing, but after being evicted by an inspector, Zhao ditches her at the police station. Since Jing Jing huddles outside his room for a day and a night, Zhao’s invites her in and feeds her. His attitude changes unexpectedly. Meanwhile, as for Jing Jing, her personality is elusory. Since she escapes from the gang on her own and deceives the police twice, is it conceivable that such a suspicious girl (who always hides a knife with her) could so readily trust a strange middle-aged man?

In addition to this, the cinematographic style is clumsy. The director of photography is Wang Xuebo, the director of Knife in the Clean Water (2016), whose immutable style strongly influences Blind Way. A number of handheld close-ups and medium shots are utilized, which keep characters at the same height and maintain a fixed angle between them when making conversations. This forces the audience to focus on the characters but does not create awareness of their urban surroundings. There are just a few scenery shots to portray the environment and this weakens the meaning of this film. Moreover, Li is over-anxious to use changes of lighting effects in order to express personalized emotion. For example, in the first half, Zhao and Jing argue under a streetlight near the road, which is replaced by an obtrusive, exaggeratedly yellow top light, and the background is a cloudy snowing day. This scene ends up looking like it is taking place on an illuminated theatrical stage.

Blind Way undoubtedly focuses on a thought-provoking issue in China – how using children to beg illegally disguises a hidden chain of profit. These ignored, marginalized, and disadvantaged groups expose the hidden moral crisis of today’s China. Surely a modernized society can’t continue to ignore this latent crisis? Nevertheless, compared to Li’s previous works, the power of Blind Way is diluted by its illogical narrative and glaring aesthetic failings.