Filming the Dark Side of Capitalism in China
By JOSEPH KAHN
BEIJING, May 6 — Li Yang has spent most of the past decade and a half in
self-imposed exile in Germany, and it must have been there, certainly not in
the unadventurous filmmaking climate of today's China, that he decided to
treat compromise as a dirty word.
[image] The Chinese director Li Yang, holding awards his mining drama "Blind
Shaft" won in March at the Deauville Asian Film Festival in France.
His first feature film, "Blind Shaft," spares nobody in its devastating
portrait of murderous grifters in the poor coal mining region of northwest
China. It skewers mine owners, who returned the favor by hounding him with
security agents and threatening him at gunpoint when he filmed on location.
It jabs at the hypocrisy of the Communist government with thinly veiled
barbs, ensuring that the film will enrage Chinese censors.
"Blind Shaft," which is being shown at the TriBeCa Film Festival Wednesday
and Thursday, will probably never make it beyond art houses in the West and
will certainly not be released in China. But the film offers an unleavened
look at the underside of Chinese-style capitalism that was previously
available only in print.
"Many of the films made in China today are like government press
conferences: they do not reveal anything about the real situation," Mr. Li
said in an interview here on Monday. "People compromise a little to get a
license, and compromise a little to get an audience, and before too long
there isn't much left."
His film, adapted from the novel "Sacred Wood" by Liu Qingbang, is a
psychological thriller that does not claim to be based on real incidents.
But it is based on the misanthropic culture of China's coal mining industry,
where death is so prosaic that it loses its power to shock. By official
count more than 5,000 miners die every year in explosions, shaft collapses
and floods. Many more deaths go unreported by private mine owners who
operate without proper licenses or safety equipment.
Mr. Li, 43, said the setting struck him as an ideal metaphor for what he
viewed as the loss of values in today's China. He left his country in 1987
to study in Germany and was trained in Cologne as a documentary filmmaker.
On his return trips, he said, he was impressed by the rapid pace of economic
growth but dismayed by what he saw as China's increasing inhumanity.
"Some people now have mafia values," he said. "They can't find a normal way
to make money. Violence pays."
Mr. Li's shaggy hair and provocative speech are not out of place in Beijing,
which has an irreverent side despite the heavy hand of the government. He
studied here and considers it a second home. But he is also a misfit. He
said he had grown uncomfortable with the spread of bourgeois values among
the city's once thriving counterculture. For example, he said, city dwellers
benefiting from the new economy tend to look down on the migrant workers
from the countryside who clean their homes and serve their food.
"Blind Shaft" portrays the cutthroat culture of an anonymous mining town,
where what limited wealth there is goes to those who treat death with the
The film opens as two itinerant swindlers, Song Jinming (Li Yixiang) and
Tang Zhaoyang (Wang Shuangbao) lure a hapless fellow migrant, whom they
persuade to pretend that he is Tang's brother, to join them for a gig at an
illegal mine. In a darkened shaft they beat him to death and then stage a
roof collapse to make the killing look like a routine accident.
The dark brilliance of the murder is quickly apparent when the mine owner
schemes to avoid an investigation. After Tang fakes an emotional reaction to
the supposed loss of his brother, the owner comes up with a $4,000 death
payment and gives it to Tang and Song, no questions asked, provided the two
leave town without demanding an official inquiry.
At a local labor market Tang and Song spot their next target, a 16-year-old,
doe-eyed boy named Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang). While seeking employment,
they pretend that he is Song's nephew.
As they negotiate their next grift, a portly mine owner warns them
caustically that safety is their own responsibility. "China lacks
everything," the mine owner says. "The only thing it doesn't lack is
people." He takes them on but demands that they work for a period without
pay or death benefits until they prove themselves worthy.
Much of the film details the three men's interactions as they work together
during this trial period, with Tang, Song and Yuan acting like a family of a
sort. The older men even take Yuan to the local whorehouse out of a warped
filial sense that they should make him a man before they kill him. All this
plays on Tang's and Song's emotions, however hardened, and sets up a twist
at the end.
The film was shot in dusty mining towns in Hebei and Shanxi provinces. The
cast and crew were frequently forced to move when mine owners threatened
them to avoid exposure, Mr. Li said. Most of the actors are first-time
performers, recruited locally.
Mr. Li has succeeded in making a movie that provides an uncompromising look
at China's social problems, though he has paid a price. Unless the film is
widely pirated, very few mainland Chinese will see it. "It's a huge regret,"
he said. "But the fact is that you can't make a real movie about China if
you worry too much about whether it will be seen."
festival's homepage: www.TribecaFilmFestival.org
Director: Li Ying
Hong Kong, China, Germany
North American Premiere
Screenwriter: Li Yang
Producer: Li Yang
Cinematographer: Liu Yonghong
Sound Recordist: Wang Yu
Principal Cast: Li Yixiang, Wang Shuangbao, Wang Baoqiang, An Jing
Blind Shaft exposes the poor conditions for the tens of thousands of Chinese
coal miners who risk their lives every day for menial wages at the hands of
corrupt mine owners. Writer/director Li Yang daringly presents a serious
political and social commentary that questions the price of progress and
could lead to serious repercussions in his home country. In a dark mine
shaft, three men exchange meaningless banter--until two of the men kill the
third with their pickaxes and cover it up by causing a cave-in. This bleak
opening sets the tone for the cold succession of physical and psychological
challenges to come. Song and Tang turn out to be con men who recruit
relatives to work in mine shafts--the man killed was Tang's brother--and
then murder them to collect family hardship compensation from the mine
owners. The men recruit a 16-year-old nephew, Yuan, who has left home to
help pay for his sister's school fee. Tang and Song try to teach Yuan to be
a man, and Song's conscience gets to him before they can follow through with
their latest con. His change of heart builds the tension between the three
men to a boiling point, which is played out in a dark, ironic climax. Li
envelops his images in bitter shades of gray that evoke the dreariness of
the men's lives. Blind Shaft is a compelling commentary that humanizes an
oft-neglected segment of the Chinese population in the hopes of economic,
social, and personal progress. --David Kwok
Li Ying began directing documentary films for China Central Television in
1984. In 1989, he moved to Japan, where he co-founded Dragon Films Inc. in
1994. Li has directed several award-winning films, including 2H, which was
recognized at the 1999 Berlin and 2000 Hong Kong Film Festivals. Mao
Zedong's Private Archive: The Mysterious Film of the Peking Opera was
produced in 1999. Flying Flying was featured in the 2001 Berlin Film
Festival; and Beijing Film Academy: A Tale of Dreams won the Hoso-Bunka
Foundation Prize and the ATP Outstanding Documentary Prize in 2002. An
encounter with Hatsue, the 78-year-old master of Shandong, was the
inspiration for Dream Cuisine.
"In order to make Blind Shaft my crew and I experienced a lot of
difficulties, including having to risk our lives at times. Now the film is
finally finished, but to me the dangers are still here. This film will be
banned from being released in China, and I will face the unfortunate destiny
of being banned from making a film in China. Many friends asked me, why must
I risk my life to make a film like this~~ Blind Shaft is a film that
realistically portrays the lives of the coal miners at the bottom stratum of
the Chinese society today. Employing a documentary-like cinematic style, it
simply and directly pushes the lives of these ordinary people in front of
the audience. There are no deliberate melodramas or dramatization. It just
portrays a real story. After the modernization and opening of China,
thousands of private coal mines have appeared. This is originally a good
thing, but has turned into many coal miners’ nightmare. The safety
precautions and facilities in these private coal mines do not meet the basic
safety requirements set by the government. The mine owners do not spend
money on buying the necessary safety equipment, but rather use huge sums of
money to bribe the party cadres and government bureaucrats, in order to
obtain the various permits needed to operate the mines. These bureaucrats
totally disregard the lives of the miners in these transactions of money and
power. The miners work in extremely dangerous conditions and they use very
primitive mining methods. They use iron pickaxes and spades for digging, and
horse carriages for transporting the coal. There are almost no modern
equipment and there is no protection and guarantee for the lives of the
miners at all. In 2001, a major accident involving a collapsed mine in Nante
in the Guangxi Province resulted in the death of more than 40 miners. But
the mine owner managed to secretly cremate and bury the remains of the
miners under the help and support of the local government, party chiefs and
police department. This incident was subsequently exposed by two brave and
conscientious reporters. But this is only one of the countless stories in
China today. According to statistics, an average of more than 7,000 coal
miners die each year in accidents. But these are only official figures. Many
more deaths go unreported and unnoticed. In the last 20 years, China has
undergone major changes. Its economy has been growing with rapid speed. But
following the economic miracle the polarization of the Chinese society has
also widened seriously. The livelihood of the people in the lower strata of
society has become worse and worse. Driven by poverty, tens of thousands of
peasants leave their homes to find work elsewhere. Seduced by money, moral
standards rapidly deteriorate and corruption is rampant. In order to obtain
money, those in power are corrupt, while those without power sell their
bodies and soul, or kill and steal. Under the pressure of heavy duties and
taxes, many peasants can hardly make a living by growing crops. Many
children have to stop going to school and start working because they cannot
pay the school fees. But the dark reality of these social conditions have
been deliberately covered up. The lives of these people living in the bottom
strata have been totally neglected and forgotten. On television and
newspapers, all people can see are just the big achievements of the
developing Chinese economy. But who is there to care about people: human
sentiments, the souls and mind of the people, and social morality~~ Who
cares about this huge mass of people struggling at the lowest stratum of the
Chinese society~~ In order to make this film, I searched and visited many
coal mines across almost half of China. One time, soon after I took a few
pictures with my camera, I was immediately surrounded by the mine owner and
the police. I was very nervous as they had guns in their hands, and they
threatened to take me away. Luckily one of my friends was also a local cadre
and he lied to say that I was only a tourist and not a reporter. Only then
did I manage to escape danger. After I went back to Beijing I was told that
the local government officials called for an emergency meeting to deal with
my case. They considered me a reporter and were very worried that I would
expose many of their shady dealings. My friend was thereafter also
implicated. Perhaps, particularly because of the fact that my life was
threatened myself, that I made the resolution to finish this film and to
tell the truth to the audience. Even though I faced further dangers, my
human conscience kept me on. Any country needs to promote its bright and
glorious side. But is it not true that the exposition and critique of the
dark and ugly sides of human nature and society can in fact promote progress
and development of the society even more~~"
Matthias Arnold M.A.
Institute of Chinese Studies
University of Heidelberg
Phone: ++ 49 - (0) 62 21 - 54 76 75
Fax: ++ 49 - (0) 62 21 - 54 76 39