Labor unions are forbidden by our favored-nation trade partner, China; and Communist officials make deep trouble for those who whistle-blow in a country where, routinely, thousands perish each year on the job. In October, 2003, the Chinese government revealed, said The New York Times, that 11,449 workers had died through September of that year. Of these, 4,620 were coal miners.
Li Yang's Blind Shaft (2003), the Berlin Fest's 2003 Silver Prize winner, was secretly filmed in China at illegal mine sites along the border between Hebei and Shaanxi provinces. Li and his courageous actors and crew shot dangerous hours down in the actual mine shafts and also above ground: dusty, treeless, pitiless labor camps where migrants flock, desperate for bare-bones pay.
How do they stay operative, these forbidden, never-inspected mines? Blind Shaft pulls no punches: with bribes to Communist officials. This is the New China, Marxism reconfigured. In the film's most telling scene, a Maoist hymn, "Long Live Socialism," celebrating "the overthrow of reactionaries," is discovered among the karoake choices in a prostitute's den. "That song is old-fashioned," a character declares, then supplies his own cynical sing-a-long words: "The reactionaries were never overthrown/ They came back with capitalist US dollars."
It's not surprising that Blind Shaft was banned in mainland China, though not just for its muckraking mining expose. There's also the depraved character of the two protagonists. Director-writer Li could have gone the easy way of similar tracts, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Bicycle Thief, and given us righteous-thinking proletariat heroes. Instead, he saddles the viewers with a couple of human lice feeding greedily off the corruption. Tang (Wang Suangbao) and Song (Li Yixiang), whom we follow through Blind Shaft, are filthy-mouthed, whoring, scam artists whose game plan includes the murder of innocents.
This is the craven way the movie begins: down in a mine shaft, Tang and Song beat in the head of a fellow worker, throw his body into an underground stream. Above ground, they run to the mine owner screaming and whining that the poor man was slain because of an underground landslide. They claim that the deceased is Tang's brother (a lie), and that they will tell officials, unless they are sufficiently bribed.
"What was that guy's name?" they ask, and shrug, when they've gone to town with a load of cash. Seemingly, Tang and Song have done this before: homicide and blackmail. Is there any mitigating circumstances for their criminality? Not for Tang, who is a hardened, unfeeling blackguard. But Song, we discover, has a son whom he's guilty about, for not sending money to go to school. He himself had to drop out, because education in China costs prohibtive money. At one point in the film, a high-schooler stands along the road, begging funds. Song puts money in the youngster's hat.
The second half of Blind Shaft brings in a third character, Yuan Fangming (Wang Baoqiang), a squeeky-clean 16-year-old boy with a pubescent high-tenor voice, whom Tang finds in a marketplace searching for work. Yuan is persuaded to follow Tang and Song to a coal mine, where the mean plan is to make him their newest mark. But not so fast: Song clearly sees a symbolic son in this nice kid, who wants money to send a sister to school. Tang thinks only of bumping off Yuan, and cashing in.
Is there a humanist ending in store from this fine, tough-minded Chinese first feature by the very talented Yang Li? It should be noted that Yang studied filmmaking in Berlin and Munich, and there's an undeniable western feel to his picture: the deft handheld camerawork of DP Liu Yonghung, a three-way male story which (coincidentally?) recalls two American classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Last Detail (1973).