Dir: Li Yang. China-Ger. 2003. 92 mins.

For most festival-goers at Berlin, the two first-time directors in competition were George Clooney and an unknown Chinese director. In the end, however, it was the latter who won the recognition, for Li Yang 's Blind Shaft is a solid, impressive debut. A watchable, character-driven thriller set in the as-yet unexplored cinematic territory of the Chinese coalmining industry, it makes up in panache and performance what it lacks in technical gloss. Director Yi, who also produced, scripted and co-edited the film, picked up a well-deserved Silver Bear for Best Artistic Contribution at the festival. This was followed by the announcement that Yi's next film, set against the background of China's Cultural Revolution, would be co-financed by French, German and Italian partners. A strong arthouse breakout contender, Blind Shaft can expect to add a raft of territories to the deals that have already been inked.

The intro is a bravura piece of film-making that introduces the audience to the start of a mine shaft somewhere in northern China. There is no dialogue, only the menacing hum of heavy machinery, as two miners share a hasty cigarette and a quick glance of understanding before heading down the shaft, where faces are fleetingly and shakily illuminated by head-torches. Thus far, the audience expect a piece of Loachian social realism in Hong Kong-style, so what comes next is doubly shocking.

Song and Tang, the cigarette-sharers, take a pickaxe to the head of a third miner, a kid barely out of his teens who has been presented as Tang's brother. Simulating a tunnel collapse, they go to the mine owner to demand compensation for the boy's family. Not wishing to risk an inquiry into the pit's non-existent safety features, the owner pays up. And the two go off to town with the money to eat, whore, and pick up another young job-seeker who is promised good money in the mining industry - as long as he pretends to be Song's nephew.

It is no spoiler to reveal this much: the story's real interest begins at this point in, as Song starts to feel protective towards the latest sacrificial victim, and the moral anaesthetic that makes the scam possible begins to wear off.

Set on the ramshackle, unregulated edge of the New China's economic boom, Blind Shaft is filmed in a laconic, non-judgmental style that suits the material well. Tightly edited, the whole thing appears to have been filmed on the run, in markets and bus stations, and in the few mines where Ying got permission to shoot. The only music is a bawdy version of a Chinese communist anthem sung karaoke-style in a brothel. But the film's stylistic austerity is offset by the richness of its character development.

Song and Yang are likeable rogues who go about their murderous business as if it were a job like any other; they are also great friends, we come to realise, and the sacrifice of the lamb that intrudes on the relationship becomes a kind of test. Another great merit is the film's unblinking, though not unsympathetic, gaze at the plight of the underclass in today's China, a country which, as one mine owner quips, 'has a shortage of everything but people'.

Prod co: Li Yang and Tang Splendour Films Limited Production, Bronze Age Films
Int'l sales: The Film Library
Prod: Li Yang
Scr: Li Yang, from the novel Shenmu by Liu Qingbang
Cinematography: Liu Yonghong
Prod des: Yang Jun
Ed: Li Yang, Karl Riedl
Main cast: Li Yixiang, Wang Shuangbao, Wang Baoqiang, An Jing, Bao Zhenjiang, Zhao Junzhi