Chinese film-maker Li Yang’s “Blind Mountain” aka “Mang shan” (2007) is a horror movie. Of course, not that kind of horror, where ghosts and monsters walk through the dark to give us few jump scares. Li Yang simply tries to direct a glaring light into the darker and horrific hidden aspects of modern Chinese society. Li’s made his feature film debut at the age of 43 with “Blind Shaft” (2003), which was set on the grueling atmosphere of Chinese coal mine industry. The film was focused on two migrant miners, who conceive an elaborate, criminal plan to murder coal miners and then extort insurance money from mine operators. The implicit message in “Blind Shaft” was about China’s moral decline as it rapidly thrusts toward materialism and globalization. If there is one respectable thing about the two mining protagonists in “Blind Shaft”, it is way they are bound to their family. Family seems to be the only thing that hints at their troubled conscience. But, Li’s “Blind Mountain” takes on some of the most twisted & terrible familial ideals, present among a rural Chinese community.
Considering the unflinching and scathing portrayal of the idyllic Chinese village, the film ran into series of troubles with the Chinese censors, although it garnered considerable praise and victorious run in the international film festivals (screened at Cannes in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category). “Blind Mountain” (set in the early 1990’s on Northern China) starts with 22 year old college graduate Bai Xuemei (Huang Lu) traveling with an acquaintance and a middle-aged manager to buy herbal medicines from villagers, which their company would sell at retail shops. Bai has taken on this job to pay back her parents for their investment in her education. The trio travel by truck to idyllic hillock, where the locals give them a warm welcome. We see a elderly village man giving some money to the ‘manager’, who then asks Bai to guard their things, while he goes in search of ‘medicine’. A little later, Bai wakes up on a bed, realizing that she has been drugged. Her ID card and money are stolen, adding to the fact that the colleagues have left.
The elderly village man says she has been bought as a wife for his son Degui (Yang Youan). Then Bai is confined to a small room, while the villagers bestow wishes on Degui for finding a wife. In fact, this isn’t the first time, the villagers have ‘bought’ (or abducted) their wife. Bai gradually learns that there are many young girls (with children), who had been abducted in the similar fashion. The villagers are keen on whether De Gui has consummated his marriage or not. One of their advises is to give her some beating. But, Bai is a strong girl and so while his father and mother restrain her, Degui rapes her. The physical & sexual assault continue as Bai repeatedly tries to escape. Few of the abducted women say there is no way they could escape the village and that it’s best to accept their fate. Bai seeks the help of the village head, a tax-collecting government official, but they all brush it off their shoulders stating that it’s just a family dispute. The reluctant Bai, however, vows to escape from the mountain. She takes in the beatings and works like a mule to find some respite from this hell.
Director Li Yang repeatedly inundates the frames with the pastoral landscapes as if commenting on how wrong our versions of hell are. Li for the most part confines his camera to eye-level to imbue docu-drama framework. Li has also extracted naturalistic performances from his actors, with Huang Lu (who turns in a brave performance as Bai) being the only professional actor in the cast. As in “Blind Shaft”, Li Yang tries to focus on the complicated situation faced by Chinese migrants. The morally ‘blind’ migrant miners in “Blind Shaft” wreak havoc as they find a way to exploit their inhumane society. Here, Bai the migrant worker struggles against the moral blindness of a rotten community. The film also tries to portray how male and female migrants are treated, both economically and sexually, in the transitioning markets. It seems to be a matter of survival for the residents of un-named village, who are challenged by modernity. Their forced family environment and impulse to have off-springs reflects on how this traditional culture has also found ways of exploitation to thrust forward with a warped ideology.
Li Yang persistently showcases shots of men gathering around for a smoke or drink to emphasize the fact of how women are largely isolated from their male family members. These gathered men offer insights on how to subjugate women or else talk about their money problems. Earning money and producing off-springs might be the basic things to for forming family chain. But, the film shows how empty and terrifying our familial ideals would be if money and producing off-springs are the only forefront of our culture. All of the male characters (including that of the teacher) are portrayed as chauvinist or ignorant. The chief flaw of “Blind Mountain” is this type of characterization, where all these men after a point become a caricature. They seem to be things that are purely there to be just hated. The village women’s characterizations were also not as deep as we expect to be. De Gui’s mother, who works as both as a snoop and negotiator, fascinates us (especially in the last scene), but we never get any little insights into her character or to know what urges her to justify such despicable things (definitely it isn’t for love).
The middle part, with Bai’s romantic allusions over the teacher and her attempt to persuade the grocery-store owner to lend money, seems to travel in an overly dramatic fashion. But, the narrative gets better as it ends with a splendid and haunting ending. American anthropologist and Activist David Graeber in his book “Debt: The First 5,000 years” explains (with examples) on how our sense of morality and justice is often reduced to the language of business deal, i.e., money and debt. Graeber argues how even moral obligations & our humanity could be downplayed in relation with money. This observation could be perfectly witnessed in the narrative of “Blind Mountain”. De Gui and his family doesn’t have a guilt over Bai’s fate because she has been bought; when Bai’s alleged husband discovers her affair with the teacher, it all boils down to the teacher discounting the debt De Gui owes; In the gruesome final scene, Bai’s father begs to the police: “It wasn’t easy to finding the money needed. If we fail, I won’t have the money to try again (to rescue Bai)”. Although the twisted bureaucracy and societal values play a blistering role to seal Bai’s fate, the money & debt seems to be the primary source for all the warped nature. The portrayal of women in the strictly patriarchal society plus the angle of ‘money’ is what in a way makes “Blind Mountain” a more universal tale rather than a two-dimension scrutiny of contemporary Chinese society.
“Blind Mountain” (98 minutes) is one of the expertly crafted and painful to watch social conscious movie in the recent years. Despite few haranguing plot points, the movie depicts how moral vacuum and victimization of women thrives in a hypocritical, discrepant society.