“Blind Mountain”: Imprisonment and forced servitude in rural China
Every so often in his slow-to-boil, hard-to-shake drama Blind Mountain, the Chinese director Li Yang slips in a moment of beauty -- a blooming valley wreathed in mist, a shepherd tending his flock -- of the sort you find in glossy travel magazines. These pastoral visions initially feel like a reprieve, a respite from the story's increasing heaviness, but there's something about these bucolic images that begins to gnaw at you too. This native, touristy fantasy about the unspoiled China, you realise, comes with a brutal price tag.
The film opens with a young, perilously open-faced college graduate, Bai Xuemei -- sensitively played by Huang Lu -- travelling with a pair of smiling strangers. Anxious to help her parents out of debt, Bai believes that she and the strangers will be buying medicinal herbs that they can profitably sell elsewhere. After a series of terse scenes that almost fling you from a bus to a hotel to a cafe, the travellers arrive on a windy country road in a puttering, three-wheeled van that finally deposits them in a tiny mountainside village. It's there, after a rush of welcoming smiles, gentle murmurs, discreet handshakes and a calamitous cup of tea, that Bai suddenly finds herself in captivity.
As female horror stories go, it doesn't get much worse than this, though it takes a while for the absolute worst to materialise in Blind Mountain. To her shock, Bai discovers that she has been sold to a small farming family that has bought her as casually as it does piglets. Locked inside a room with barred windows and a dirt floor, her identification papers missing, the family's cretinous son lurking, Bai fiercely resists, at first with incredulity, then rage. Her screams are answered with a gag; her sprints to freedom lead her into chains. She lashes out. She begs and bargains; the family keeps feeding her; she keeps feeding the pigs. All women go through this, says the family's mother, clucking sympathy while she holds Bai down.
This is the second feature from Li Yang, who first hit the international scene in 2003 with Blind Shaft, a pulpy thriller about a couple of grifters. In that film lowlifes roam from one illegal mine to the next, knocking off innocent labourers for insurance payouts. Tough and stripped to the narrative bone, Blind Shaft has a tighter, faster feel than this new film, in large part because it's about men who make (bad) things happen in the world, while Blind Mountain hinges on a woman whose imprisonment -- conveyed through claustrophobic rooms and taunting landscapes framed by windows and doors -- paradoxically helps hobble the storytelling.
In Blind Mountain Bai's attempts to break free give the story momentum, a pulse that slows whenever she pauses to catch her breath. Some captivity stories abandon the captive for the captor or the rescuer: they get out of prison fast. Not this one.
On occasion the Li Yang's editing feels overly rushed, almost as if he were in a hurry to share the kind of story that, for the most part, tends to be drowned out by upbeat reports about China's economic growth. Somewhat eerily, three weeks after Blind Mountain had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007, the news broke about a brick-making factory where hundreds of workers, many of them children, had been kept in slave-like conditions.
Blind Mountain is a coda to that story, as well as a reminder that art sometimes keeps the truth alive far better than the news.
Source: The New York Times