Blind Mountain (Mang shan)
China (2007) Dir. Li Yang
“How can anything survive / When these little minds tear you in two..”
So sung Gene Pitney in his 1961 hit Town Without Pity and while the central location of this stark and incendiary Chinese film is a mountain village and not a town, the above lament is apposite. And, most frighteningly of all, the story is based on true events.
Struggling to find work to help pay her parents back for her education, college graduate, Bai Xuemei (Huang Lu) joins a small group collecting herbal medicines in the mountains. Arriving in a remote village, Bai enjoys a welcoming drink and promptly passes out. She awakens the next morning to find she is alone and her personal effects are missing – she has been sold to a local family as the wife of Huang Degui (Yang Youan).
With his parents and other villagers, including the village chief (Zou Xiaoli), on hand, Degui keeps Bai as a slave on the small farm, beating and raping her whenever she is disobedient and all attempts to run away are easily thwarted. In biding her time until her letters reach home, Bai befriends other women in the same situation who have all given up hope of leaving.
The second film from Li Yang is part of a proposed loose trilogy with “Blind” in the title although the third has yet to surface. A sparse and bleak expose of human trafficking and slavery in China – which shockingly persists to this day – Li’s film ruffled more than few feathers in its frank depiction of the inherent corruption that fuels such practices, and the Chinese censors ordered more than 30 cuts before sanctioning its release.
Naturally the excised material consisted of anything critical of the state party and its abhorrently poor attitudes towards its people, whilst Li also used this as a chance to comment on the country’s one child policy, which it was decided should be limited to the birth of boys only – a simple understanding of biology and the mechanics of reproduction clearly not a strong point of the Communist manifesto.
Fortunately the uncut version has made its way to our shores, complete with the original abrupt ending, one of many filmed to appease the Chinese censors, including the “happy” conclusion for the Chinese DVD release. Slight spoiler there but perhaps the gut punching original climax is more befitting, given the sombre and sobering context of the rest of the film.
Bai’s plight begins in earnest within the first five minutes, immediately making her a sympathetic character, made easier by the shamelessly nonchalant attitude of her new “family”. Traded with the same indifference as they would one of their pigs, the family are oblivious to Bai’s confused and upset state, telling her to deal with it as money has changed hands; if she wants her freedom then she has to reimburse the money.
At this early stage this has the makings of a psychological horror film where a twisted sadist is holding a young woman against her will to satiate his own perverted whims, and whilst the family may not be mentally unhinged grotesques, their myopic behaviour and twisted sophistry is nonetheless unsettling and objectionable enough to incite the ire of the audience.
Due to the early 1990’s timeline, the get out clause of mobile phones and social media is negated; even electricity appears to be a luxury in this bucolic nightmare land. Bai constantly writes letters to give to the postman on his rickety bicycle to deliver in town, getting no reply, a situation that is transparent to us but not to the hopelessly optimistic Bai.
A further sign of the village’s impecunious state is reflected in the lack education of the denizens, resulting in an open scorn of books since it is accepted that their destiny is in farming. The only teacher in the village is Degui’s cousin Huang Decheng (He Yunie), by default the smartest person until Bai with her college education arrives. He and Bai begin an affair, born out of Bai’s desire to leave but the cruel hand of fate is always close by.
Bai also befriends Li Qingshan (Zhang Youping), a young boy too poor to attend school so she ends up tutoring him, a move that finally reaps a reward. There is a tacit sadness that the only male Bai can truly trust is a young boy, before his callow mind will assuredly be sullied and indoctrinated by the immutable chauvinism of the village’s patriarchal purview.
The biggest tragedy is found in the other women who have accepted their fate, not necessarily in a Stockholm Syndrome way, but to keep the peace and by having children, have practically cemented their futures in the village. Whether intentional or not, there is a strong feminist subtext suffused in Bai’s unwavering self belief and fiery independence, even down to exploiting her sexuality to her benefit.
Huang Lu, in her debut, is the sole professional actor in the cast, the remainder made up of untrained locals and quite often this shows. That said, enough pass muster to deliver credible performances and add that extra realism to what is already feels convincingly genuine. As Bai, Huang Lu exudes grace and confidence beyond her then nascent status, engaging the audience on levels beyond sympathy and frustration.
Indeed, frustration is a pervasive sentiment felt when watching this film, which is not limited to Bai’s ordeal. It is the way a human can be bought or sold as a commodity, like fruit or a newspaper, with no concern for judicial or moral repercussions. Similarly, for the right price, a blind eye can be turned – hence the title – if it means upsetting hidebound practices and beliefs.
Li Yang is to be commended for making such a vital and revealing film as Blind Mountain, its relentlessly bleak and damning content carrying an important human rights message that demands attention, which maybe one day, will be acted upon.