Harsh and compelling, Li Yang’s Blind Shaft has the focused intensity of a vintage B movie. This sometimes shockingly direct account of greed and murder in China’s illegal coal mines is part neorealist exposé, part noir thriller—a film with no wasted scenes and a steadily increasing tension.
Blind Shaft, which won the Silver Bear last year in Berlin and the Best Narrative Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens at Film Forum next Wednesday, turns a cold eye on the Chinese economic miracle. It’s set in the bleak northwest, where the weary-looking miners are up before dawn and work shifts can last for days. The conditions are horrible enough—then, down in the tunnel, one guy casually kills the co-worker he’s been joking with and fakes a collapse. Another guy starts screaming about his trapped brother. It’s a scam that the itinerant miners run—murdering comrades whom they’ve falsely identified as relatives, then collecting the quick payouts that management offers to avoid an official investigation.
“What was the name of the guy we killed?” one grifter asks his partner as they take off with a wad of greasy bills. Callous as these killers are, the mine owners are scarcely less so. According to the Chinese government, some 5,000-plus miners die each year—and, since private mine owners are loath to file reports, the actual number is likely much higher. In Blind Shaft, the mine boss considers whacking the bereaved “brother” to save on death benefits, then crunches the numbers and decides that, in view of the money required to take care of the cops, murder would be the more expensive option.
Li trained in Germany as a documentary filmmaker, and for all its crime-fiction melodrama and free-floating symbolism, this accomplished first feature—independently produced and adapted from Liu Qingbang’s muckraking novel—plays as cinema verité. Li is more narrative-driven and less distanced than Jia Zhangke, but he shows a similar ability to ground his story, enacted largely by nonprofessionals, in flavorsome reportage and the grit of daily life. The frontier town where the killers go to spend their blood money reeks with acrid, chilly atmosphere. The guys pair up with some hostesses in a scuzzy karaoke club; the older one’s song, a childhood favorite, is “Long Live Socialism.” The girls teach them a new bawdy version—then go into the back room for some suitably unglamorous sex.
From a hole in the ground to a hole in the wall: Blind Shaft was shot, sometimes with a hidden camera, in a succession of greasy dives, grungy markets, and storefront brothels. Capitalism is primitive and cheerfully unregulated, with peddlers openly selling fake ID cards on the street. How peculiar that authoritarian regimes like Iran and China would inspire gutsier crime stories than our own democracy (even as the movies themselves are banned). Blind Shaft is openly critical and at least as ferocious as Crimson Gold in its uninflected representation of a dog-eat-dog economy. The pitiless partners pick up a naive kid whom they plan to pass off as a nephew. Then it’s back into the barren hills of hell for a scam made even more appalling by the victim’s innocent neediness.
A lean 92 minutes, Blind Shaft tunnels toward its inevitable tragedy. It won’t do to give away the movie’s ending—which is surprisingly underplayed yet filled with multiple ironies. The movie doesn’t so much illuminate a social problem as conjure the darkness around it. Blind Shaft means to leave the viewer dazed, and it does.