Amazing how even as the rest of the world grows smaller, China continues to keep itself so separate, so utterly foreign from the rest of the world. “Blind Shaft” depicts a way of life in China that I have no way of verifying but that I have to assume is relatively accurate. Either way, it’s a decent film, not great but good enough.
It is set in the country’s coal mines, often unsafe and generally run by unscrupulous bosses. Early on, friends Song Jinming (Yi Xiang Li) and Tang Zhaoyang (Shuangbao Wang) kill Tang’s brother, then cause a cave-in, making it look like he was killed in the accident. Wanting to avoid an investigation, the bosses pay Tang a settlement, and he and Song are off.
Thing is, that wasn’t really Tang’s brother. It was just some itinerant worker, and this is what Tang and Song do for a living, killing miners, making it look like an accident, collecting settlement money and moving to the next mining camp.
For their next job, they find a naive 16-year-old kid named Yuan Fengming (Baoqiang Wang). His dad went off to find work months ago and hasn’t been heard from, necessitating his dropping out of school to support the family. Song and Tang tell him to pretend to be Song’s nephew when they apply for work, and soon the scheme is afoot.
Writer/director Yang Li, a first-time filmmaker, presents important differences between Song and Tang. Tang is a bit older, and with fewer morals. Song is supporting a wife and child back home, giving him if not an excuse then at least a reason for the killing and the conning. (Goodness you can’t make enough money doing an honest job.) He takes Yuan under his wing and wants to help the kid, even as he prepares to carry out the initial plan of murdering him.
This is not a con-artist film so much as a social commentary, though. Yang Li is interested in the conditions that would create people like Song and Tang and the corrupt mine bosses who employ them. As such, the film may hold more interest for the people of China themselves — where, in a bit of tragic irony, the film hasn’t opened and probably never will — than for Westerners, though it does provide a curious glimpse into the culture of the East. Seeing a brothel where customers sing karaoke with their hired women before getting down to business made me realize I will probably never fully understand the Orient.
Note: Whoever did the subtitles for this film deserves an award for providing much unintentional amusement. They appear to have been written by a native Chinese-speaker who learned English and who didn’t learn it very well. I note especially this gem: “What’s damn taking so long?!”
B- (1 hr., 32 min.; Chinese with subtitles; )