Film-Forward Review: BLIND MOUNTAIN

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Huang Lu as Bai Xuemei, 
Photo: Kino International

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BLIND MOUNTAIN
Written, Produced & Directed by Li Yang
Director of Photography Jong Lin
Edited by Yang & Mary Stephen
Released by Kino International
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Hong Kong/China. 97 min. Not Rated
With Huang Lu, Yang Youan, Zhang Yuling & He Yunle

Recent films about the epidemic of human trafficking have focused on the role of organized crime, such as Lukas Moodyssonís Lilja 4-Ever and Marco Kreuzpaintnerís Trade, which followed desperate young Eastern European women falling for a procurerís promise of work and ending up enslaved in prostitution. But the myths of history are also replete with incidents of wholesale kidnapping of women for wives and begetting, from the daughters of Shiloh in the Bibleís Book of Judges to the Sabines of Ancient Rome. Blind Mountain graphically demonstrates that the practice has not faded into antiquity.

Bai Xuemei (the very expressive and beautiful Huang Lu in her feature debut) naively leaves the city with a friend and her friendís boss, who has told Bai that she can earn money gathering medicinal herbs far up into the mountains of northern China. Feeling guilty about her familyís large debts from her and her brotherís college educations, Bai travels the long distance despite warnings of the hard work ahead. Suddenly and abruptly, she wakes from a drugged stupor, finding herself held captive in a forced marriage ceremony. She has been bought to be a wife, and not the first such woman in the village. Besides the 40-year-old groom and his elderly parents, the entire community is complicit in the brutal arrangement.

These are not the happy glorious peasants Mao championed. Writer/director Li Yang brooks no nostalgic view of the destitute farmers left behind in Chinaís rush to urban and capitalist development, and little sympathy. Only the character of Baiís hardworking mother-in-law has some complexity, as opposed to the crude and violent behavior of the one-dimensional father-in-law and Baiís husband, who is bullied by his peers. She begs Bai to understand a motherís lack of choices, even as she keeps constant surveillance on her daughter-in-law and her menstrual cycle.

Li Yang is particularly effective at showing just how difficult it is for even a spirited and educated woman to escape, whether by passive or active resistance, protests to the village chief and her family at home, sexual bribery, or other connivances with the somewhat-educated locals. Leaving is hardly possible from the beautiful, isolated mountainous landscape. Though Bai finds scattered moments of gentleness with little boys and their school teacher, the horrendous degree of punishment towards her ratchets up and up Ė rape, chains, beatings, and betrayals. Apathetic outsiders shrug at interfering in the family problems of an apparently crazy woman.

Director Li Yang did extensive research, and the almost all non-professional ensemble includes actual victims and rescuers who have been involved in hundreds of such tragic cases. Unlike Liís first feature Blind Shaft, about greed in the dangerous coal mining industry made guerrilla-style without government permission, Blind Mountain has a long list of cooperating government authorities, and the finger pointing is only at ignorant and law-breaking locals. While a disturbing case of female infanticide is included (and there donít seem to be any little girls in the village), it is clearly a threat, and the film is careful not to blame the shortage of women in rural areas on the Chinese governmentís one-child policy Ė agrarian areas are exempt. Nora Lee Mandel
March 12, 2008

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