The dreams and disappointments of a family of coal-mine workers in contempo China provide low-key but poignant drama in “The Shaft,” an impressively controlled debut from helmer-scribe Zhang Chi. Not to be confused with Li Yang’s “Blind Shaft,” with which it shares a gritty power, pic reflects the plight of a vast number of ordinary laborers unable to climb the ladder of China’s post-communist economy, and is sure to see further fest action and specialty play.
Playing like the cinematic translation of a fine short-story collection, “The Shaft” is structured as three episodes that effectively mix realism and stylized compositions. Each seg advances the tale chronologically, adding additional info about its characters, but each also runs slightly past its natural ending. Some small trims could intensify the film’s overall impact.
Mostly shot on location, the film is set in a bleak village amid the imposing mountains of western China, where coal mining reps the main industry. For the central characters, it’s all they know. Pic’s visuals continually stress geography as destiny, with train tracks overhead and upwardly winding roads contrasting with the miners’ descent into the shaft. Motif of the mine’s elevator cage slamming shut also serves as a metaphor for their feelings of being trapped.
First episode focuses on 20-ish couple Jingshui (Zheng Louqian), a safety monitor, and Daming (Li Chen), a handsome miner. When gossip threatens their relationship, Jingshui struggles between her feelings for Daming and another prospect that would permit her to escape her current situation.
In the second tale, Jingshui’s rebellious younger brother Jingsheng (Huang Xuan) repeatedly declares his disdain for mining, aspiring instead to a singing career. But neither his finances nor his grades make it possible for him to escape his fate.
Conclusion follows the siblings’ aging father Baogen (Luo Deyuan, shatteringly poignant) as he faces retirement and the need to clear up unfinished business before ill health sidelines him.
Achieving eloquence with minimal dialogue, pic’s small but gripping dramas unfold more through repeated images, masterful composition, framing and sound design. Epitomizing his slightly oblique approach, helmer Zhang makes potent use of offscreen conversations overheard by the main characters.
Painterly cinematography and gritty production design lead an excellent tech package. Music (traditional and contempo) is used sparingly but evocatively, while the leading perfs are understated but convey the characters’ yearning no less powerfully for it.