Zhang Chi’s debut feature The Shaft is set in an impoverished small town in western China where the mining industry looms over the lives of its inhabitants, who either earn a wage from working in its filthy depths or try to escape its dreaded clutches. While the film conveys the bleak state of this community through the microcosm of a lower class family, it takes on a triptych structure that allows each member’s dreams, frustrations and harsh realizations to be explored in considerable depth despite its relatively brief 98 minute running time.
Ding Baogen (Luo Deyuan) is a single parent who will soon retire from the mine where he has spent much of his life and is concerned about the futures of his children, Jingshui (Zheng Louqian) and Jingsheng (Huang Xuan). Jingshui has a seemingly comfortable job at the mine’s security office and has been dating miner Song Daming (Li Chen), but is increasingly upset by the nasty-minded rumor that she secured her administration position by sleeping with the manager. Although devoted to Daming, she’s understandably tempted by the chance of a new life in the city when her aunt offers to arrange a marriage to a wealthy suitor. Her school-age brother Jingsheng has little chance of gaining a university place as he has been skipping classes, but believes he has what it takes to become a pop star. Unfortunately, he cannot afford to pay for singing tuition and helping a friend with a knock-off clothing scheme lands him in prison for a few weeks, after which the mine is the only option. A concerned background figure throughout his children’s narratives, Baogen takes center stage in the closing section as he retires from the mine in poor health and sets about locating his wife who ran away years earlier.
Mining activity is rarely seen, but Zhang makes it clear that the town’s economic lifeline has ensured survival at the expense of hope. Each storyline is introduced with a repeated shot of its shaft as it transports workers to and from the daily grind, emphasizing the drudgery that laborers must endure if they want to maintain a very basic standard of living. The scenes that take place outside initially seem to offer a respite from this gloomy enclosure, but Zhang finds a pervading sense of claustrophobia in open spaces. Characters meet in secluded spots to snatch private moments away from their routine only to be framed within derelict structures or against the polluted sky. Zhang favors static compositions that often keep the protagonists at a distance from the viewer and one another, thereby limiting intimacy, while the minimalist dialogue rarely goes beyond everyday exchanges. The grim environment makes this town emblematic of the areas that have been cruelly left behind during China’s economic acceleration, with even the town’s main streets showing little sign of modernization. There are few cars on the road, local enterprise consists of small shops and cheap food vendors, while smoky pool halls and KTV clubs represent the only leisure options. It’s a desperate landscape that’s ripe for exploitation, with a recruitment drive by a Beijing security company turning out to be a scam to con eager job-seekers such as Jingsheng out of the ‘application fee’.
While his sister is offered a chance to escape, Jingsheng toys with rebellion by not taking the university entrance exam and insists that he will never work in the mine when his father initially tries to set him up with an interview, but he is basically a decent son who is only postponing the inevitable. One of the film’s most powerful moments occurs when Jingsheng abruptly stops singing during a karaoke session, giving up on his dream and staring blankly into space as the patrons around him sip their drinks; another comes later when, needing a moment of human connection, he tenderly touches the hand of a salon employee as she washes his hair. The women in this community realize that, however sincere these men may be in their determination to provide, they will fall short either emotionally or economically. Daming fails to provide Jingshui with public support when she is ostracized by her co-workers while Jingsheng finds his high school girlfriend slipping away as she pursues a place at a prestigious Beijing university.
Zhang steadily draws the viewer into the largely unspoken dynamics of the Ding family, making Baogen’s belated rewards – a surprise 60th birthday celebration and the chance to finally take the bus out of town to search for his estranged wife – all the more affecting. The Shaft is a poetically realized film which resonates with an understated power that stems less from its emphasis on the limitations that are imposed on the lives of citizens in such communities than it does from the manner in which they so readily accept them.