[Marxism] Review: "Blind Shaft" (2004)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 18 12:47:40 MST 2004

Tang (Wang Shuangbao) and Song (Li Yixiang) are products of the new 
China. Adrift in the merciless world of day labor at coolie wages, they 
have discovered latent entrepreneurial skills as murdering scam artists. 
In the opening scene of the film, set in the gloomy depths of an actual 
coal mine in China, they beat a fellow worker to death who is understood 
to be a relative from their village. Upon ascending from the pits, they 
claim that the dead man was killed in a cave-in and demand compensation 
from the boss who is all too anxious to provide hush money.

After they are presented with 30,000 yuan in compensation (about $4,000) 
for their just cremated "relative", they dump the ashes on the side of 
the road the minute they are out of sight from the mine. Upon arriving 
in a nearby provincial city, they wire most of the money back home and 
spend the rest partying with prostitutes. In a scene that conveys the 
caustic sensibility of director Li Yang, who made the film in secret and 
is an exile in Germany now, the two men begin singing the words "Long 
Live Socialism" to a Karaoke tune in a brothel bedroom. A whore tells 
them that they are singing out-of-date lyrics. When they ask what the 
new words are, she replies that the song is now about triumphant 
Americans taking over China with the dollar.

Even under the new rapacious system, there are still familial bonds 
based on traditional village life that are not so easy to break. One of 
the miners sends money home dutifully for his teenage son's school fees. 
Eventually they stumble across a sixteen year old boy named Wang 
Baoqiang (Yuan Fengming) shaping up at a day labor recruiting station on 
the street. His own father left home a year earlier in search of work 
and he cannot afford school fees. (China introduced such fees about ten 
years ago.)

The miners have found their next victim.

After providing him with a fake ID stating that he is 18 and training 
him to identify himself as their nephew, they go off to a local coal 
mine situated in about as foreboding a landscape ever seen on this 
planet. Bone-dry and windswept, it looks like something transmitted back 
from the Orbiter camera on Mars. Like everything else in this remarkable 
film, it is shot on location. The miners are all actual miners who were 
happy to work on the film.

According to a profile on Li Yang that appeared in the November 3, 2003 
Guardian, the miners didn't mind being involved in the film so long as 
their work was not interrupted. Li said, "Most of them seemed amused by 
having us around. They had a good sense of humour, and a sort of 
magnanimous view of the world in general. There is a word we have in 
China called 'renming'. It means being sanguine. Accepting one's fate."

"Blind Shaft" excels on a number of levels. As a character study, it is 
driven by the contrast between the cynical scam artists, who have the 
raffish charm of Fagin and Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens's "Oliver 
Twist", and the naïve youth they take under the wing who is as trusting 
and naïve as Oliver Twist himself. Their kindness toward him, such as it 
is, evokes fattening up a turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner. While not 
intended to give away too much about the film's plot, let's just say 
that one of the miners eventually is torn between slaughtering the boy 
or keeping him as a pet--just like a turkey one grows too attached to.

It is also a stunning portrait of a China that is not likely to be seen 
in a PBS travelogue or an approved film for the export market. This is a 
China of prostitutes, day laborers, 19th century--like coal mines, 
donkey carts and dirty food stalls. It is a reality that belies all the 
happy talk of China catapulting into the front ranks of developed 
nations. It is estimated that around 7,000 workers die each year in 
unregulated mines. It is also the China of child labor. In some 
provinces sixteen year olds like Wang make up ten to twenty percent of 
the work force.

Now that China is imposing Victorian England type conditions on much of 
the population, it is not too surprising that Li Yang has responded with 
a Dickensian film. Perhaps in the not too distant future, there will be 
revolutionary activists just as there were in those troubled, unjust times.

(Unfortunately, I attended "Blind Shaft" far too late--it closes tonight 
in NYC. If it ever shows up on television or in DVD/Video, it is not to 
be missed.)


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