One of the best cinematic surprises of 2003 was Blind Shaft (Mang jing), the gritty thriller-cum-exposé about murder and greed in the wildcat coal mines of northern China, which marked the first foray into fiction filmmaking from veteran documentarian Li Yang. Unfortunately, Li's 2007 follow-up Blind Mountain (Mang shan) about China's slave trade in "wives" for peasant farmers fails to measure up.
Blind Mountain is set in a backwater Chinese village in the early '90s, though it could as easily have been set in the present since human trafficking continues in remoter areas of China emptied of women by sex-selective abortion and infanticide and the greater opportunities provided rural women to emigrate to urban manufacturing zones.
Bai Xuemei (Lu Huang), an urban collage grad is lured to the remote village by a slaver posing as a businessman looking to hire her as a traveling salesperson. Once there, Xuemei is drugged, robbed, raped, and confined by Degui Huang (Yang Youan), a forty-something peasant farmer and his parents (Jia Yinggao and Zhang Yuling) who've paid the slaver for a bride.
What follows from this promising premise is a number of attempts by Xuemei to get help, flee, or kill herself. It spoils nothing to tell you that these attempts are repeatedly foiled (if they weren't then the film would be very short indeed) by the collective actions of all the villagers, minus only the other women the community has enslaved over the years who are merely indifferent to Xuemei's attempts to escape having tried and failed to do the same themselves.
Unfortunately, the characters are so thinly drawn and the situations explored so closely bound to Xuemei's futile escape attempts that there's no substance to the film beyond the cat-and-mouse set pieces. As written and directed by Li, Huang and the villagers are not evil, but they are savage brutes. Alas, Li makes no effort to provide a means for the audience to empathize with the villagers, which should be possible even as we condemn their actions.
Even as pure thriller Blind Mountain fails to work well because it asks the viewer to accept that Xuemei is incapable of seeing what should be blindingly obvious about the true intentions of those she puts her trust in to aid her escape attempts. Li seems to think Xuemei needs these blinders to account for the length of time she allows to elapse between more dramatic escape attempts, but the clash between her unquenchable desire to flee and her gross lapses in judgment are never reconciled.
Xuemei's plight is sometimes reminiscent of Grace's in the latter half of Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003), but whereas it's easy to accept that von Trier's townspeople are caricatures given the minimalist abstractions of setting and structure, verisimilitude is expected of Li's villagers given his neorealist style. Alas, Blind Mountain fails to deliver verisimilitude or much of anything else.
Blind Mountain is presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Colors are steady, but the image suffers from motion blur, aliasing, excessive edge enhancement and mild print damage.
Given that this release features only a 2.0 mix, the audio is superb. The Mandarin dialogue is crisp and the soundscape is dynamic.
Optional English subtitles appear well translated and are appropriately sized, paced and placed.
The only extra on this release is a gallery of stills.
With its repetitive set pieces and thin characters Blind Mountain (2007) fails to rival the artistry of filmmaker Li Yang's prior thriller Blind Shaft. At best, Blind Mountain amounts to a middling cat-and-mouse thriller with a social message.