Li Yang’s feature debut Blind Shaft was one of the breakthrough independent films from mainland China in the early-200s in terms of receiving art-house theatrical exposure beyond the festival circuit and prompting debate regarding economic disparity in the People’s Republic. A tough exploration of the lack of morality in a transformative society set against the grim backdrop of the mining industry, Blind Shaft was awarded the Silver Bear at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival, but caused such controversy in its home territory that Li’s promising career was somewhat curtailed in the process. Adapted from Xingang Liu’s novella Sacred Wood, the film opens with mine workers Song (Yi Lixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) sharing a cigarette before heading into the darkness to earn their daily wage. Once inside, however, they proceed to murder a fellow worker and make his death look like an accident. They then claim compensation from the management of the mine on the grounds that their victim was a ‘relative’ and that paying them off will be an easier way to resolve the matter than a lengthy official investigation into ‘safety standards’. It becomes apparent that this is an insurance scam that Song and Tang practise regularly: they are soon on the lookout for a gullible migrant whom they can pass-off as a ‘family member’ when securing work at another mine. They find one in naïve 16-year-old Yuan (Wang Baoqiang) who is roaming the region in search of work that will fund his schooling, and go through the well-rehearsed routine of taking the youngster under their wing.
As with many of the Sixth Generation films of the period, Li casts a mixture of professional and non-professional actors in order to achieve a balance between propulsive drama and rough authenticity. It also follows such crime-orientated works as So Close to Paradise (1998) and Suzhou River (2000) in terms of focusing on drifters with sketchy backstories: it is not entirely clear if Song and Tang are miners who have become conmen as a result of the low wages offered by their profession, or if they are actually criminals who have targeted the mining sector as a source of income, adopting worker identities as part of the plan. Song and Tang regularly send money home to their families, but do not seem particularly anxious about returning to their loved ones, preferring to seek pleasure in the nearest brothel. Although he maintains a steady pace, with the audience anticipating the horrible conclusion due an understanding of Song and Tang’s scheme from the opening scenes, Li otherwise utilises a documentary approach that makes Blind Shaft as much of a study of daily drudgery as it is a crime narrative. The mining industry becomes a symbol of the free market that is prone to exploitation from a variety of angles: Song and Tang are taking cruel advantage of the system by extorting money due to the death of a ‘family member’, but mine managers are already ignoring safety rules in order to meet monthly quotas, resulting in 5,000 deaths each year, many of which are covered up through backhanders to corrupt police officers.
Li also dealt with this barely-regulated industry in order to shoot the underground sequences, bribing managers to allow his crew access to mines on the border between Hebei and Shanxi. Scenes that take place in the back streets of nearby towns were shot with a ‘hidden camera’ to avoid repercussions from the local authorities for documenting the underbelly of China’s emerging economy. It’s an unflinching vision of a society where the desperate need for money is eroding the core value system at a time of ideological transition. Relaxing with the hostesses at a seedy karaoke lounge, Tang sings “Long Live Socialism” only for the girls to teach him a raunchier new version of the song in which references to Chairman Mao are replaced by the US dollar. Much of tension comes from the increasingly uneasy friendship between Song and Tang, as the two conmen disagree about the suitability of their mark: the older Tang is entirely lacking in conscience, while Song is troubled by the fact that Yuan has the same family name as their last victim. Yet it is Song’s belated moral protestations that ultimately result in the film’s sardonic denouement. Following censorship problems in China that forced Li to split his activities between Germany and Hong Kong, he would eventually complete Blind Mountain (2007), a powerful companion piece to Blind Shaft which dealt with the kidnapping of a college student in a remote part of Shanxi province. A concluding chapter to his intended trilogy on China’s social issues in rural areas, provisionally titled Blind River, sadly remains unrealised.