“Blind Mountain” is director Li Yang’s follow up to his much praised 2003 debut, the mining horror story “Blind Shaft” and sees him continue in his quest to shine a harsh light on some of the darker and frequently hidden aspects of life in China today. Here, he explores the clash between modern values and the backwards traditions and beliefs which still persist in some rural areas by tackling the heartbreaking issue of abduction and forced marriage.
Unflinching and horribly believable, the film inevitably became the subject of controversy and ran into trouble with the Chinese censors, though went on to win considerable praise and to enjoy a successful run at international festivals, including Cannes where it screened in the Un Certain Regard category and won the director a well deserved standing ovation of applause.
The plot follows the unfortunate Bai Xuemei (the young though extremely talented actress Huang Lu, who turns in an amazingly brave performance) who takes a job selling medicines to villagers in a remote rural area in Northern China. On her first trip she is drugged and deserted by her colleagues, who it turns out have sold her to a family as a bride for their aging son De Gui (Yang Youan). Repeatedly raped and beaten, the poor girl tries many times to escape, only to be chained up in her small room like an animal. Although she gradually adjusts to her imprisonment and life in the mountain village, she refuses to give up hope, though things soon go from bad to worse.
Whereas “Blind Shaft” worked in part as a black comedy, albeit in a particularly bleak and sardonic manner, “Blind Mountain” is an unremittingly grim affair that never shies away from the sheer hopelessness of Xuemei’s awful predicament or offers up any easy solutions. Although the film is depressing, Li completely eschews melodrama and artificial tension by taking a very matter of fact, almost non-fiction style approach, wisely relying upon the situation to generate sympathy rather than any unnecessary emotional cheap shots. Indeed, part of the film’s power arguably comes from the fact that the viewer actually knows very little about Xuemei or her backstory, focusing instead on her unending abuse, highlighting the frightening fact that this is something which could potentially happen to any young woman of her age.
As a result, the drama is wholly convincing and the film certainly works as a harrowing depiction of a real social problem. It does frequently make for difficult viewing, especially during the brutal early scenes of Xuemei’s captivity, though Li’s skill as a storyteller ensures that it never degenerates into a catalogue of misery, retaining a very human spirit of defiance throughout.
As well as painting a very ugly picture of rural life, Li also manages to work in plenty of social and political criticism. Probably the most disturbing aspect of the film is not so much De Gui’s torture of his unwilling wife as the way that the rest of the village not only refuse to help, but seem to approve of and even complicity involve themselves in the situation. This is particularly true in the case of his monstrous parents, who in their minds are simply following an age-old tradition and who take the matter coldly as a purely practical affair. Perhaps even worse is the way that the local authorities refuse to get involved, either brushing it off as a family dispute or simply bowing to the will of the village mob. Again, Li shows restraint and maturity in never portraying any of them as evil two-dimensional villains, instead attacking their barbaric mindset, and through this questioning the reality of development in modern China. Of course, the film could be accused of pandering to stereotypical impressions of rural China, especially if the cynical view is taken that it was likely produced mainly for overseas audiences, though the story is heartfelt and genuine enough to make any questions as to Li’s intentions rather immaterial.
Visually, although grounded the film is surprisingly beautiful and even poetic thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Lin Jong, who added a similarly well-balanced mixture of grit and elegance to the likes of “Sunflower” and the early efforts of Ang Lee. Here this works particularly well, as the magnificent picture postcard mountain scenery contrasts effectively with the rotten humanity of the villagers. The film certainly has a documentary air, underlined by the naturalistic performances of the cast and the lack of a musical score, and this only serves to make it all the more credible.
Harrowing and powerful, “Blind Mountain” stands as an excellent example of social conscience cinema and confirms Li as one of China’s most talented and challenging directors. Although hard going and painful to watch for the most part, the film is expertly crafted throughout, and builds to what must be one of the most rewarding cinematic climaxes of recent years, with the Cannes applause only too understandable given the sheer visceral feeling of release it brings.
Yang Li (director) / Yang Li (screenplay)
CAST: Lu Huang … Bai Xuemei