Documentarian Yang Li’s first fictional narrative film Blind Shaft (2003) is a kind of Chinese film noir. Its story focuses on two men who make a living by murdering fellow workers in China’s illegal coal mines, claiming kinship with the deceased and raking in the company payouts to the relatives. The characters could, as Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman noted, have “stepped out of a Jim Thompson novel”—which describes both the theme and tone of this disturbing thriller.
Several aspects of Blind Shaft are unusual—starting with its lack of a musical score. I have no idea if this is an artistic or budgetary matter, but it does give the movie a somewhat unusual feel. Unfortunately, while it works in some instances—the almost casual violence is somehow even more disturbing for not being goosed with music—it also exacerbates the fact that the film is rather slow moving (which I suspect is an artistic choice).
In some ways, the fact that the film appears to have been entirely shot with a hand-held camera isn’t particularly noteworthy in the age of the shaky-cam. However, the fact that Li was a documentarian means he approaches the hand-held camerawork exactly as a real documentary filmmaker would—that is, keeping his camera as steady as possible. The idea of evoking a sense of documentary immediacy and realism by having an attack of St. Vitus Dance with the camera is strictly a notion belonging to filmmakers who, well, don’t know any better. This is a refreshing change in hand-held cinematography.
The film does mean to be more than a thriller, since it’s partly an activist attempt at exposing the corruption of illegal mining in China. And it’s partly to give a picture of a country rushing into a free-market economy mind-set without regard for any possible ramifications. Still, its hook is primarily the neo-noir thriller aspect, and while this does largely work, I do have to note that if Li thinks his ironic ending is surprising, he’s very much in error. Nonetheless, as a thriller, it’s a pretty solid affair—and there’s no getting away from how unsettling the tone is.