Dir/scr/prod: Li Yang. Ch. 2007. 103 mins.
Li Yang demonstrates once again that he is a master of cinematic tension with his second feature, Blind Mountain . Based on the widespread practice of bride trafficking in rural China, this harrowing but limpidly shot story of the abduction and sale of a young college student lacks the rich, character-driven plotting of Li's impressive debut, Blind Shaft, which went on to pick up a slew of other awards after its 2003 Berlinale Sliver Bear.
But it is does provide a textbook lesson in audience manipulation, racking up our identification with the abused heroine and throwing us just enough scraps of hope, at just the right moments, to keep us guessing right up to the deliciously abrupt ending, which brought a round of cathartic applause from the press corps at the film's first Un Certain Regard screening.
Blind Shaft was more of a critical success than a box-office breakout, even on the indie circuit, and Blind Mountain is by no means a more commercial film - though its denunciatory focus on issues of women who are sold into slavery in China is likely to generate a certain amount of media attention and news features, along the lines of Ousmane Sembene's female circumcision film Moolade. It is unlikely to do much on home ground - not so much due to problems with censors as because Chinese audiences are still notoriously unreceptive to downbeat cine-verite fare, especially of the home-grown variety.
Bai Xuemei (Beijing Film Academy student Huang Lu) is a pretty graduate who is promised a good job working as a salesman for a medical company. Her new employers take her into the mountains, ostensibly to buy medicinal herbs; here, Xuemei is drugged, and wakes up to find that she has been sold to a peasant family as a wife for their truculent son. Beaten, chained and raped by her new 'husband' (with the help of his parents), the spirited Xuemei is forced to bide her time in this remote village, which is miles from the nearest town.
Men call all the shots around here (girls are seen as breeders and workhorses, and those surplus to requirements are occasionally drowned at birth). Not even the village chief wants to rock the boat, as there are plenty of other bought brides in his territory.
Xuemei tries to get letters through to her parents, and an affair with the village schoolteacher seems briefly to offer a way out. But he too is related to her husband's family, and the unmasking of the affair ends all hope on this front. Xuemei never gives up, even when Yang Youan, her husband, finally succeeds in getting her pregnant. But the conspiracy of silence (a silence that carries through onto the film's music-less soundtrack) is so tentacular that the outcome teeters on a knife's edge until the film's last frame.
If there is any relief in this harsh world, it comes from the still un-brutalised kids who Xuemei ends up teaching, and from the impassively beautiful mountain scenery - whose crisp light and changing seasons, captured by experienced Taiwanese DoP Jong Lin, contrast poignantly with the desperation of the story. Beauty and barbarism coexist in this rural prison-idyll, in which threshing poles, goatherds' whips and the harsh grating of corn off the cob carry themes of violence and coercion into the visual texture of the film.
Splendour Films Ltd
Kun Peng Xing Yun Cultural Development Ltd