Blind Shaft (2003) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for nudity, sexuality, violence and language
Running Time: 92 min.
Cast: Yi Xiang Li, Wang Baoqiang, Wang Shuangbao, Ai Jing, Bao Zhengjiang
Director: Li Yang
Screenplay: Li Yang
Reviww published February 4, 2004
Renowned as a documentary filmmaker, Li Yang crafts his first fictional narrative with mostly successful results. Banned by his native China, Blind Shaft is a crime drama with traces of thriller elements, and political commentary which lies subversively underneath regarding the underground upwelling of capitalism in the seedy underbelly of the socialist regime. The almighty dollar is what everyone is seeking here, some willing to kill to possess it. Those who like to read into foreign films to find political statements should be able to maintain interest in the little pieces here and there, while the well-acted plot only offers modest interest for those who enjoy character-driven crime stories.
The main plot involves two drifting coal-miners who sucker unattached, uneducated, jobless men that no one would miss into pretending to be a relative of one of them in order to get them on-board the mining crew. Once inside alone, the duo kill the third man, claim there was an accident inside the mine shaft that crushed him, and the big boss ends up paying them off as representatives of the family on condition that they keep things on the hush, as improper safety violations are a sure way to get the entire operation shut down. Now the two men have conned a drifting 16-year-old boy desperate for a job to pretend he is one of their nephews, plumping him up like a turkey before the slaughter, but one of the men suspects something is wrong this time, and tensions spurred by lack of trust escalate.
The finest aspect of Blind Shaft is not really the political subtext, because for all of its validity in certain scenes, it is more an aside than the main thrust; it's the finely drawn characterizations. The two main villains of the story are not brimming over with evil, rather, they are depicted as amoral opportunists who see a way to take advantage of a system that is in a state of fragile disarray. The teenage boy has a kind heart and good soul, and we do care about his plight, but even he has his temptations, which makes him seem all the more human. We already know what the men have in store, and as things progress, the more dread we feel.
It's not all perfect, really. The ending, without spoiling it, is predictable. As laudable as Li Yang's vision is, his storytelling devices need a little more tweaking, because everyone in the audience knows that something is not quite right this time around, and the story practically telegraphs what is to happen long before the events transpire.
So, summing it up, Blind Shaft will be seen as immensely riveting, or slow-moving and insubstantial, depending on what it is you're looking for going in. If you're seeking politically-tinged commentary on communism vs. capitalism, or the New China vs. the Old, you'll probably enjoy reading many things into the otherwise simplistic story to give you some food for thought. Those who don't know or care about the politics, will probably enjoy the good characterizations and dramatic elements, and a surprising dark sense of humor. Any seeking thrills and chills, a riveting game of cat-and-mouse, or a cracker-jack suspense vehicle, will likely shrug at the lack of hard tension and subdued final scenes which seems to build up to a climax that never fully arrives. Li Yang has crafted a worthwhile film, but like the men entering the mines, not everyone is going to come out getting what they planned for going in.
©2004 Vince Leo