As cinema, it's a tidy piece of work, well-crafted and spare, with an impeccable plot and a sharp central conflict. Unfortunately, Blind Shaft is also miserably bleak, its portrayals of poverty, corruption and icy violence delivered in a near-constant stream of grays and blacks. Made with obvious integrity and the power of purpose, it's easy to appreciate -- but it's hard to imagine anyone actually enjoying it.
Song Jinming (Li Yixiang) and Tang Zhaoyang (Wang Shuangbao), both members of China's struggling lower class, are partners in crime. Rather than spending long days shoveling coal in cramped and dangerous shafts, they travel from mine to mine, working only long enough to deter suspicion. Once established as bona fide employees, they kill a fellow worker whom they've brought along, having previously arranged for the third man to pose as a relative. Then they disguise the murder as a death-by-mine-collapse and extort recompense from the owner. It's a clever (if brutal) scheme, and it buys the two men hotel rooms, food and prostitutes in their stints in the city. It also gives Song a healthy sum to send back to his son, whose schooling is apparently the only matter of importance to the man.
Tang cares about nothing but money, but Song has his son and the dream of his son's education, both of which keep him at least a little tethered to the world of his feelings. The differences between the two men seem negligible until they meet Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang), a bright-eyed 16-year-old boy they find wandering in the marketplace. Yuan's father has left the village in search of work. Now Yuan, without money for school, has come to the city to follow in his footsteps.
Tang lures him into the scheme with little trouble, promising to help the boy earn good wages at a nearby mine. But Song, the more scrupled of the two, can't quite reconcile himself to killing a boy who reminds him so much of his son.
It's a sad story made sadder because we know that its characters stand for untold numbers of Chinese peasants who have fled their villages to seek work in the cities, only to meet hardship greater than what they left. If only it were easier to watch. Li is a documentarian; Blind Shaft is his first dramatic feature film. To tell his miners' story, he uses a documentary approach, forgoing music or stylization of any kind for a bald portrayal of the people and the events. Ultimately, though, the lack of style is numbing (as relentless, no doubt, as the life of a miner). It's hard not to feel deadened, beaten down, even neglected by the film. It's a worthwhile experience, but will anyone pay for it?