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posterBlind Shaft

(China, 2003, 92 minutes, color, 35mm)
(In Mandarin with English subtitles)

Directed by Li Yang

Qiang Li . . . . . . . . . . Song Jinming
Baoqiang Wang . . . . . . . . . . Yuan Fengming
Shuangbao Wang . . . . . . . . . .Tang Zhaoyang
Jing Ali . . . . . . . . Xiao Hong

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Like a tough little B movie from Hollywood's heyday, Li Yang's tough little thriller, Blind Shaft inhabits the realm of a gritty, pessimistic minor film noir like Detour or Roadblock from its double entendre title to its grim conclusion.

Blind Shaft is set in the Northwest of China, a dry, brittle-looking landscape where hopes fade before every dawn. Coal miners descend to the dank pits of the mines, paid a desperate wage and suffering "shifts" that seem more like prison sentences, hacking away at the coal face for days at a time without seeing the sun. The mines themselves are often illegal operations, their workers in a deadly space beyond law and compassion. Two miners/scam artists have found a racket borne of the foreclosed future of the rogue mines: faking accidents and murdering coworkers for blackmail.

If the places of the film seem strikingly real, they would to the miners themselves, for some of the film was shot using hidden cameras in the mines, labor camps, and the village markets, in brothels and blind tigers. Unions are illegal in the Chinese mining industry. Cave-ins and explosions kill quickly, and black lung lies in wait for those who make it back to the surface.

Some of the best films about mining, such as the British film The Stars Look Down, the German film Kameradschaft, and the American films Black Fury, The Molly Maguires, Matewan, and How Green Was My Valley, Blind Shaft presents the brotherhood forged in the danger and the dark of the mine. Unlike those films, however, Blind Shaft is not warm and comradely, but as cold as the rivulets of water that stream down the shaft walls, miles below the surface. Conditions in the mines have turned the ethics of the miners feral. They are doomed to repeat their cycle of crimes and scams, always in danger of falling under the knife of a former partner in crime, or being killed in an "accident" dreamed up to mine a vein of money from the guilty mine companies.

Blind ShaftNot surprisingly, Blind Shaft was banned in China. There are so many possible reasons for this action, it's hard to choose one: the clandestine filming, skirting much of the state filmmaking censorship apparatus, the portrayal of business corruption so widespread it's a basic feature of the Chinese economy; the deadly working conditions; or the picture of the Chinese worker as an entrepreneur in crime. Murder, sabotage, trafficking in fake identification and working papers, pension scams - the miners of Blind Shaft are vicious miniature capitalists, the "creative destruction" of market theory taking on the sinister gray and black hues of the mine, blood and gore spattered on he coal itself.

5,000 miners die officially in Chinese mine accidents each year; the off-the-book casualties make the figure much higher. Blind Shaft, with its cinema verite footage, is almost a documentary of this pain, inserted into a fictional text. Into this dungeon, where the sun never shines, is sunk a blind shaft of cruelty.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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