“China has a shortage of everything but people,” chortles the boss of a questionably legal coal-mining operation midway through Li Yang’s Blind Shaft. But maybe not for long, he should add — at least not if itinerant miners Tang (Wang Shuangbao) and Song (Li Yixiang) have their way about it. In this film’s stark opening passages, the two report for work, their worn blue-gray workers’ clothes making them nearly indistinguishable from the colorless sky above. Down in the shaft, dimly illuminated by the lights from their safety helmets, they take a break from the grueling labor to chat it up with Chaolu, a relatively new guy on the job. They exchange some pleasantries about how things are going back home in the suburbs, some complaints about how they’ve had to leave their wives and families behind in order to find work, etc. Then, with a nonchalance that suggests he might be groping for his lunch pail, Tang reaches behind him and, midsentence, smashes Chaolu on the head with a hunk of metal. Tang and Song promptly stage a small cave-in, then report to the foreman that Tang’s “brother” Chaolu has been killed in the “accident.” Of course, Song explains (Tang, naturally, is overcome by grief), they could make a big deal out of this, get the police involved, have the mine investigated for safety violations. Or they could just go quietly into the night — provided the mining company is prepared to ante up suitable compensation for Tang’s bereavement.
This, we soon learn, is not the first time Song and Tang have enacted such a melodrama. (“Next time, it’s your turn to mourn,” Tang grunts to Song, before casually tossing Chaolu’s cremation urn to the side of a busy road.) Nor will it be the last. For while they may be miners by trade, their search is less for coal than for human weakness as they prey upon those less fortunate — or, at least, crafty — in the man-eat-man world that is modern China. No sooner have they disposed of Chaolu than our two antiheroes are off to seek out their next victim, knowing, like all good criminals, that it’s essential to keep moving. Lest I make them sound inhuman, I hasten to add that both Song and Tang do have their own families tucked away somewhere — that part of their act is true. And Li, who tells this story with a terrific, terrifying economy, refuses to pass judgment on whether these men are, ultimately, rank opportunists or desperate victims of circumstance. They certainly think themselves to be acting out of necessity — but then, so do most sociopaths. Still, there are moments in Blind Shaft where Tang (clearly the leader of the pack) and Song seem downright benevolent. When they settle on their next “relative,” a jobless teenage rube named Fengming (Wang Baoqiang) whose face is easier to read than most skywriting, they get the boy laid for the first time and treat him to a last supper. Song even has a momentary crisis of conscience when Fengming’s nauseating honesty gets the better of him and he tries to talk Tang out of going through with the murder. Momentary being the operative word here.
“Long Live Socialism,” proclaims the title of a Communist Party ballad warbled by a tipsy Tang in a scene set in a red-tinted karaoke bar that doubles as a brothel. Only, as one of the seductive young escorts tells him, he’s gotten the lyrics wrong. Where the song used to go, “Reactionaries overthrown, the imperialists run away with their tails behind them,” it now goes, “The reactionaries were never overthrown, the capitalists came back with their U.S. dollars, liberating all of China.” In fact, both sets of lyrics are equally fantastical. And so goes the story of an entire country torn between its obeisance to its communist legacy and the necessity of capitalist infusion, where the “miraculous” performance of China’s GDP has nevertheless left hundreds of millions living in harsh poverty. This conundrum and all it brings with it (the privatization of state-owned industry, the “redevelopment” of low-income neighborhoods, a general feeling of hopelessness) has become the overriding concern of an entire wave of mainland Chinese filmmakers, the so-called Sixth Generation, who include Zhang Yang (Shower), Wang Bing (Tiexi District) and, most prominently, Jia Zhangke (Xiao Wu, Unknown Pleasures). Unlike the famed Fifth Generation of filmmakers (Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, et al.), who achieved enormous international success telling stories about China’s tumultuous past, these new directors find a moment of equal political import happening right here and right now. (Though for this very reason, their films are even more likely to be censored by Chinese authorities than were the Fifth Generation films.) And if their work largely lacks the decorous pageantry that enamored many audiences of earlier Chinese cinema, they are forging a gritty industrial poeticism that is uniquely their own.
Blind Shaft is at once muckraking, social-realist exposé (some 10,000 Chinese laborers die in mining accidents each year, while Li himself spent dozens of hours filming this movie in real, working shafts) and jackknife Melville-esque thriller. Yet Li’s film is also a fine social comedy — albeit one colored as black as pitch — about how you don’t have to work in a mineshaft to see your life descending into darkness. (An alternate title might be I’m All Right Comrade.) That’s a lot of tones and styles for Li to juggle, but at 92 minutes, the movie unfolds as fast and mercilessly as the way Song and Tang approach their victims: It sideswipes us. We keep waiting for Li to make a move that feels false or less than essential, to veer into overtly sentimental or polemical territory. But such a moment never comes, and Blind Shaft has reached its startling conclusion before we’ve even had a chance to catch our breath.
BLIND SHAFT | Written, directed and produced by LI YANG, based on the novel Sacred Wood by Liu Qinqbang | Released by Kino International | At the Nuart