The Cathay countryside and its inhabitants have rarely looked drearier than in "Black Blood," Zhang Miaoyan's impressive second feature.

The Cathay countryside and its inhabitants have rarely looked drearier than in “Black Blood,” Zhang Miaoyan’s impressive second feature. Set in a hostile area beyond the Great Wall and shot in beautifully textured, black-and-white HD, the pic charts the downfall of a dirt poor family after they’ve started selling their own blood for money — and subsequent contracts AIDS. Zhang’s formally rigorous and quietly observational portrait manages to transfigure a topical subject into a specific study of abject poverty and human desperation. At two hours-plus, the demanding pic is most at home at cinephile and Asian events.

Though it clearly tells the story of an entire region, “Black Blood” focuses on just a small nuclear family consisting of Xiaolin (Mao Danhui), his wife, Xiaojuan (Liu Mengjuan), and their daughter, Ying (Yingying), who goes to primary school. To pay for tuition, Xiaolin needs money that the unproductive soil around the village can’t provide, which leads him to volunteer to sell his blood to a man in a passing cart.

The actual act isn’t shown, as the vehicle and its owner remain in extreme longshot, with the camera actually moving sideways during the blood-tapping. This not only reinforces the idea that society looks away regarding such matters, it also imbues the scene — framed by a hulking and unforgiving landscape of barren rocks — with Faustian undertones.

Though Xiaolin initially rejects the idea, his wife also starts donating not much later, and they soon find themselves in water-drinking contests to compensate for their blood loss, shown in fixed medium shots that unspool in real-time. The couple’s idea to set up a blood transfusion center initially seems to bring them some prosperity, though the film’s dark and ominous undercurrents soon rear their head.

Helmer-editor and co-scribe Zhang is also credited with the almost tactile black-and-white cinematography, which includes a few striking Steadicam shots. An impressive sequence in which an ill Xiaojuan is transported to the city on a mule-drawn cart clearly echoes the work of the maestro of colorless miserablism, Bela Tarr.

Though the narrative, stripped back to its bare essentials, is captivating, the pic’s second hour is not as strong, with its impact muddled by some shots without any clear meaning. A division into chapters (“The Great Smoke,” “The Great Gate”) feels artificial, as does the presence of a few shots in color, which show a factory almost hidden in ominous billows of smoke.

Pic was shot north of the crumbling Great Wall, near a nuclear testing ground and in an area often hit by sand storms, and the arid and unwelcoming landscape is a character in itself.

Score is largely absent, and sound work superb, with the chirpy optimism of the State Radio broadcasts a painful contrast to the day-to-day reality of the villagers. A few shards of the sparse dialogue and a twist of sorts in the final shot add some much-needed dry wit.

Black Blood

China-France

Production

An Arizona Films Distribution release (in France) of a Rice Production, Arizona Films production. (International sales: Arizona Films, Paris.) Produced by Miaoyan Zhang, Guillaume de Seille. Directed, edited by Zhang Miaoyan. Screenplay, Zhang, Yang Zhihong.

Crew

Camera (B&W/color, HD, widescreen), Zhang; music, Andy F. Butler, Annette Bauer; sound, Jin Juhong; assistant director, An Huijun. Reviewed at MK2 Beaubourg, Paris, Dec. 13, 2011. (In 2011 Rotterdam, Thessaloniki, Jeonju festivals.) Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Mao Danhui, Liu Mengjuan, Yingying. (Mandarin dialogue)

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