Non-conformist Chinese auteur Lou Ye has always trained his sensuous gaze on outsiders, and in “Blind Massage,” he explores the fringe existence of sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses from an unsentimental distance. Demystifying their specialized profession and evoking their arduous search for love and stability, Lou’s detachment — often an artsy pose in his other films — has a kind of tactfulness here that allows these absorbing stories to speak for themselves. The helmer’s second feature made with the Chinese film bureau’s official approval, this French-Chinese co-production is no more mainstream than his previous work. Likely to enjoy critical buzz but lukewarm domestic B.O., it will nonetheless find its way into his usual festivals and European arthouses.
At the Sha Zongqi Massage Center in Nanjing, fully and partially blind employees enjoy an oasis outside what they call “mainstream society.” Run on a slick management model by blind partners Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua) and Sha Fuming (Qin Hao), the masseurs are respectfully called “doctors” and attain dignity through their skill and self-sufficiency. While Zongqi is a man of few words, Fuming is an outgoing charmer whose hobbies including writing poetry and visiting dance halls for the retired.
Into this close-knit community comes Sha’s old classmate Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), broke from stock losses in Shenzhen, and eloping with his young, foxy, partially sighted g.f. Kong (Zhang Lei). Then comes proud, self-contained Du Hong (Mei Ting, perfectly poised), who regards her clients’ daily flattery on her beauty a nuisance, and who is doggedly courted by Fuming; she rejects him, dismissing his professed love as “an obsession with a concept,” since he cannot grasp what physical beauty is. Another young masseur is handsome lad Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), whose hormones are racing and who becomes infatuated with Kong. His heart remains set on her even after his pal Yiguang (Mu Huaipeng) initiates him into the pleasures of Nanjing’s red-light district, where he and sassy sex worker Mann (Wang Lu) find casual emotional refuge in each other.
Bi Feiyu’s source novel (adapted by Ma Yingli) has been lauded for avoiding the inspirational/patronizing tone of most mainland literature on the disabled, and Lou shows similar integrity by conveying the experience of living in the dark from his subjects’ perspective. With his signature fluid and intimate film language, he captures the touchy-feely way in which protags interact among themselves, and honestly acknowledges their sexual desires and deprivations.
Adopting a clean and simple storyline that focuses on ensemble acting rather than on the narrative riddles and knotty reversals that have defined his oeuvre, Lou delves into each protag’s emotional world with a documentary-like observational style that is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Gradually their individual hangups surface, revealing the unspoken wounds of social discrimination — as when Fuming goes on (of all things) a blind date, taking a risk that only reinforces the futility of his hopes of becoming integrated into society, or when Wang vents his own self-loathing and injured pride in a shockingly gory confrontation with debt collectors. Other than a somewhat manufactured and overwrought twist in the third act, the film wraps on a gently forlorn that captures the randomness and mutability of life.
The professional actors, many of them Lou regulars, mingle comfortably with their sight-impaired amateur counterparts. Of the latter group, Zhang gives a knockout perf as the coquettish Kong; fearlessly voluptuous in sex scenes that might make professional actresses blush, she is a radiant presence, even in the rare moments when she’s subdued by sadness or insecurity. The film also marks a significant breakthrough for Qin, proving that his range extends beyond the morose roles he played in Lou’s “Spring Fever” and “Mystery.” Although he’s obviously spent considerable time mastering the body language and facial expressions of the blind, he goes beyond that to express the frustration and loneliness beneath Fuming’s man-of-the-world facade and upbeat demeanor.
Limning a different brand of disaffection from Qin’s, Guo draws on the simmering rage he’s evinced past roles to convey Wang’s uphill struggle as he tries to make a comeback in life. Looking careworn even when he should be finding comfort in Kong’s passionate embrace, Guo imbues his climactic outburst with reverberant power.
Lou’s fondness for shakily handheld, artfully opaque cinematography (notably in “Purple Butterfly” and “Spring Fever”) finds a less pretentious channel in lenser Zeng Jian’s highly tactile re-creation of the characters’ impaired vision, conveyed through blurry image textures, spatially distorted closeups, lurching camera movements and off-kilter angles; by contrast, the sound design, although fine, could have more inventively reflected the protags’ hypersensitive hearing. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“Prisoners”), who collaborated with Lou on “Mystery,” contributes an ambient, minimalist score that effectively builds to an elegiac melody, incorporating classical Chinese flute music toward the end. Other craft contributions are stylish; the muggy, misty ambience of Nanjing, shot here in constant torrential rain, fuels the downcast mood.