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Working in the theater, Godot-like setting of the oddly, real-life dreariness of Chinese coal mining, Blind Shaft depicts dangerous desperation and corruption with a sobering relevance that'll stick to you in a most uncomfortable way. And Westerners (like me) will be especially curious—how often do we think of Chinese and Coal Mining?
Yang gives you plenty to see in a tightly focused film that works its magic much like a Sam Fuller picture. With definite B elements in place, the film also incorporates horror, noir and neorealism to an almost aching point of tension. You are immediately thrust into this dark world and through its unrelenting force and style, there is no exit.
Adapted from novelist Liu Qingbang's best seller and Laoshe Literature Prize winner of 2002, "Shen mu" (Sacred wood), the picture takes us into the life of itinerant miners scamming through murder. The two racketeers are Song (Qiang Li) and Tang (Shuangbao Wang) who have concocted a scheme of reaping compensation for wages after a relative "accidentally" dies in a mine. Their opening target is young Yuan (Baoquiang Wang) who's working to pay for his sister's education. Offering him a job, Song poses as his Uncle.
It's a horrifying scam in horrifying conditions. Bad enough these guys have to get up, half alive, before day break, even worse their job requires they will sometime work in a shaft for days. When men are casually killed and the murderers are given swift payouts without any investigation, the picture doubles the dose of questioning—just who is more corrupt? More evil?
Shot (sometimes with a hidden camera) Blind Shaft also depicts the grimy towns the killer's frequent where they engage in depressing sex with hostesses in a slimy karaoke club. The grittiness of the bars, brothels and markets reveal an underbelly to China that you're not apt to see so aggressively sullied. But making this film within a more restrictive regime (though banned) brought out a gutsier view than most American films, not only in it's depiction of the callous deaths truly occurring within these mines (according to authorities, there are more than 5,000 mine deaths a year—according to the filmmaker, the number is significantly higher) but in the misery of the people working there. An original, horrifying, beautifully crafted picture Blind Shaft will suck you in with its real life terror.
Kino presents Blind Shaft in Widescreen Anamorphic (1.78.:1). The transfer appears a bit soft, but that's a minor quibble as the film is mostly, crisp. The squalid look of the film is wonderfully presented and the darkness and light well balanced and creepy.
The audio comes in Cantonese Digital 2.0 Mono (with the option of English subtitles). Though not pristine, again, the audio is good and the mix sounds great.
Extra's are slim. There are trailers for the film and a Li Yang Biography and Filmography. Also included are a still gallery and production notes. It would have been nice to watch an interview about this important release, the history and scandal around it—or at the very least, a text scroll.
Li Yang is a newer director from China and certainly one of the most intriguing. Blind Shaft works on so many levels beyond social commentary that both its statements and execution are intensely compelling. A masterful important film.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun