A gray, grittily realistic drama centered on two murderers in China’s illegal coal-mining community, “Blind Shaft” has a low-key power that comes as much from its off-handed approach to the dark material as from any manipulative techniques. Film announces a promising talent in writer-director Li Yang, 43, who directed several docus while studying in Germany, and shot this first feature under the official radar in his homeland. Festival kudos in both Berlin and Tribeca could attract not only TV sales, but also specialized distrib interest.
In the cold, gray-blue light of an early winter morning, in an arid region of northern China, workers descending into one of the country’s many illegal mines include weathered, stone-faced Tang Zhaoyang (Wang Shuangbao) and younger-looking, bearded Song Jinming (Li Yixiang), along with Tang’s brother, Chaolu. In the dimly-lit corridors below ground, where safety measures are almost non-existent and accidents are common, Tang and Song beat the third man to death and fake a small cave-in.
Panicking over an official inquiry, the mine’s young head eventually agrees to pay Tang and Song if they sign a document clearing the mine of any blame and immediately pack their bags. The duo’s clever, negotiating techniques establish the film’s oblique approach to its potentially horrifying subject-matter. Tang and Song are, in fact, ruthless killers who’ve hit on a way to exploit such mines’ illegal status by picking up migratory workers and presenting them as “relatives” before murdering them.
The two zero in on a naive, 16-year-old kid looking for work and expertly reel him into their next deadly scam. The son of a peasant who left home to work as a miner, Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang) has quit school to make some money so he can look for his father, who’s gone missing. He’s persuaded to pose as Song’s 18-year-old nephew and sign on with them at an illegal mine. It’s at this point the picture plays its ace card, taking time to show what looks like a real relationship developing between the three as Tang and Song introduce the naive teen to the real world — including a gently comic sequence in which they get the nervous kid laid with a prostie (An Jing) — and Yuan himself develops a filial affection for his two “saviors.” As the day of Yuan’s death draws near, Song starts to have doubts about killing such a young lad, especially after he discovers a surprise piece of information. Twist ending is blackly ironic.
Film’s tone is so laid back, and the perfs by Wang Shuangbao and Li so natural as the two murderers, that it’s sometimes easy to forget about the true horror of what is being shown on screen. Shot in a style not dissimilar to Jia Zhangke’s “Xiao Wu,” with a totally convincing feel for everyday life in China’s marginal communities, the film doesn’t openly crusade against the iniquities of illegal mines but rather presents it as self-contained world with its own frontier rules participants accept. (In fact, the publication two years ago of the novel on which script is based did much to bring the problem out into the open in China.)
Casting is excellent, with Wang Shuangbao especially good as the more callous but still avuncular Tang, and Wang Baoqiang nicely underplayed as the ingenuous Yuan.
Blowup from Super-16 is good, with the slightly grainy look and cold colors adding to the atmosphere. Pic was shot in various remote, dusty locations around the border between Hebei and Shaanxi provinces, with exact geography deliberately left vague. Helmer Li, who was born in Xi’an, China, but holds a German passport from his time spent studying in the country, put much of his own money into the production, as well as making the pic through an H.K.-registered company, thus avoiding Mainland filmmaking regulations.