blind mountain

April 13th, 2008

So we picked up a few DVDs yesterday afternoon, among which was 李杨/Li Yang‘s 《盲山》/Blind Mountain.

I’m wondering if this is going to turn into a “Blind” series, each film exploring another of modern China’s social ills. If Li Yang is not careful, he might end up like Zhang Yimou, being criticised by the more narrow-minded of China’s people for making films to show foreigners the bad sides of China. Yes, I’ve heard that criticism before.

Anyway, it goes like this: A young, university-educated, but naïve, very naïve, woman by the name of Bai Xuemei is kidnapped- but through trickery, not violence- and sold as a wife to a man in a remote mountain village. She continuously tries to escape, at one stage managing to get on a bus from the county town into the city, but never succeeds. She tries to get a message out to her family, and eventually succeeds, thanks to a child she takes on as a student, and her father comes with two cops to rescue her, but…..

The ending is very sudden, very brutal, very sharp, yet leaves you hanging. You’re left with absolutely no idea how the story actually ends.

And why can’t she escape? Well, all the wives in the village were bought in against their will, and all the villagers see this as perfectly normal. The older wives have even reached some kind of accomodation with, if not acceptance of their situation, to the point where they even help the village men keep the younger women in line and in the village.

Blind Mountain is filmed almost like a documentary. Li Yang makes no judgement about the villagers, he simply presents the village as it is, warts and all.

And there’s no Hollywood melodramatics. Not even any background music. We are left to respond simply as we respond. And it’s a good thing too- I can’t stand how so many filmmakers insist on telling us when we must laugh or cry or whatever. I hate being emotionally manipulated by a soundtrack.

And the result is a quietly brutal film. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the battle scenes in 《集结号》/Assembly. It simply, quietly presents the facts of life in this village, the horrific situation Bai Xuemei finds herself in. And it is subtly infuriating. And it’s not just the men of the village you find yourself hating- actually, you don’t find yourself hating or even really angry with anyone in the film. Your rage and anger are at the situation, not any of the people. How can you hate the people when for each and every one of them, this is simply the way life is and always has been? And yet, you can’t really sympathise with Bai Xuemei, either. Her naïveté is just too frustrating. You want to be on her side, you want to sympathise with her, but she just keeps cocking it up.

Horrible, I know, but that’s how it is. lzh spent a fair bit of the film telling Bai Xuemei how she should go about escaping and getting frustrated with her when she got it all wrong. Again.

And yet, I can’t help but suspect Li Yang of sneaking a few subtle value-judgements into the film. Books, for example. Books and education seem to set up a hierarchy of, ummm, “humanness”, with the villagers being little better than animals, the village school teacher and village chief (both of whom are locals, but with a slightly higher level of education) being a step above, and Bai Xuemei the only character shown as fully “human”.

In a way, Li Yang has a point: Ignorance does tend to keep people stuck in the rut of “the way things have always been”; education does tend to lift people out of that rut and give them the tools to explore other possibilities. However, those are only tendencies and don’t necessarily apply to real people in the real world. I mean, some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have PhDs. Some of the brightest people I’ve ever met never finished high school.

And having said that, better education would be one key to ending the buying of kidnapped brides in this village, but only one key. You can’t change “time-honoured” traditions so easily.

About halfway through the film, lzh pointed out that all the village children were boys. Not a girl in sight. And then, of course, there was a scene in which the village chief had to fish an abandoned baby out of the river. One of the dimmer village wives said, “Oh, it’s a girl!”

“Of course it’s a girl,” chimed in an older, wiser wife, “Who’d throw away a boy?”

And then Bai Xuemei, who had been gotten pregnant by then (pregnancy and babies were not just about producing a son and heir; they were also about control of the wives), was, naturally, worried about what kind of child she’d produce. “Don’t worry,” says a lesser-educated wife she’d made friends with, “Your belly’s so pointy, it must be a boy.” And fortunately, it was a boy. Another sneaky little value judgement?

lzh said, “Well, of course they have to get wives in from outside if they throw away all their girls.” Yeah, sure, but if they produced enough girls to satisfy the local men, the result would be terrible inbreeding.

And the ending? This is not confusion, an explosion and 王宝强/Wang Baoqiang walking away with a big grin on his face à la 《盲井》/Blind Shaft. No, there’s not even the suggestion of a resolution, let alone a happy ending. You’re left hanging, wondering what happens next to Bai Xuemei, her husband and her father.

And always in the back of your mind is the knowledge that this story could well be all too true.

It’s not a film that has much positive to say. It tells a horrific story, and the quiet, non-judgemental, documentary style- and the knowledge that this sort of thing actually does go on in some of China’s more remote regions even today- just adds to the horror. It is very well made, though. I won’t say I liked the film, but I would recommend it- not as a “must-see”, but as a “worth-seeing”.

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