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Deep in a Chinese Coal Miners' Story
China Underground: Li Yang's 'Blind Shaft'
Hyejin Kim (mine1004)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-04-05 11:12 (KST)   
[This review contains some spoilers. -- Ed.]

A dark and dusty cave swallows a pack of Chinese men every morning. Most coal mines in China are powered by migrant workers who are forced to endure back-breaking, dangerous work in order to send money home.

A dim and quiet place. The underground world is completely isolated from the outside. Two miners, Tang and Song, take a rest with another friend and ask him whether he is homesick. With a shy, but big smile, he admits to missing his family, but says he can tolerate it for the happiness of being able to send money home before the New Year. Out of the blue, his two friends smack him over the head with their pick-axes and fling his body under collapsing rocks.

©2006 Kino International
In Li Yang's 2003 award winning movie, "Blind Shaft," death is unworthy of attention. No background music. No climax. No artistry showing respect for a human's death can be found in the film. In the middle of the movie, one character says that China is short of everything, except humans.

With desperate looks on their faces, Tang and Song exit to the bright world above. Tang cries out that his brother has died in the mine due to a collapse. With Song's mediation, the mine owner thrusts money into Tang's pocket and pleads with them not to make the accident public. The owner's friend casually advises him to kill both of them and to conceal their death with the help of local officials who are his friends. But the owner responds that giving compensation to these two laborers would be nothing compared to the bribe for local cadres.

Tang and Song are murderous grifters who use the mining industry to exchange human lives for cash. They wire money to their own families and promise to return before the Spring Festival. Song is proud of sending home money for his studious son's tuition. Tang and Song share the dead man's belongings.

They accept their lives in the harsh reality of today's China. They believe that their work is simply a way they can survive.

One boy changes everything. Shy and naive, 16-year-old Yuan goes to the city with a big bag on his shoulder after his family runs out of money for his tuition. He wanders the streets looking for any kind of job that pays and dreams of finding his father, who has not contacted the family for months. This simple soul is fished off the city street by Tang. Listening to Yuan's story, Tang promises to help him make a lot of money and disguises him as Song's nephew to take him to a coal mine. After acquiring ID showing Yuan to be two years older than he is, the three men set out to work in a coal mine.

But Song comes to feel that this boy is bad luck. He thinks that the boy resembles the man they killed previously. Through the boy, Song looks at himself and his son. He himself was unable to finish school because of money problems and could not help but give up.

Yuan follows Song as though he were his real uncle. He carries a history book around, unwilling to give up his education. Away from his own son, Song feels a strong paternal attachment to Yuan. Song continually delays the date for killing him. His hesitation irritates Tang.

Then comes an unexpected ending. On the day Song promised Tang he would kill Yuan, Tang all of a sudden swats Song's head first and then attempts to kill Yuan. Yuan backs away from Tang, who suffers a blow from a recovering Song. Unaware of what is going on inside, a miner closes the shaft after Yuan's exit. Dynamite is detonated, leaving Song's and Tang's bodies in the darkness.

Hesitating before taking money as compensation, Yuan walks away from the mine and watches the cremation of his foster uncle.

The Chinese director, Li Yang, shows many current problems in China, which the Chinese government cannot be happy about. His movie is so realistic, even minor characters and passing dialogue shed light on Chinese society today. His movie is banned from being shown in China, and Li is no longer allowed to make films in the country.

The Chinese coal industry has the reputation of being not only the world's largest, but also the most dangerous sector in China. China has thousands of small mines and pits, many of which are uncertified and have abysmal safety records. They are run by local governments or individuals. According to a widely-cited estimate, about 10,000 miners die in China every year. The real figure is probably far higher.

Owing to the infamy of Chinese coal mines inside and outside the country and human rights campaigns, the Chinese central government appropriated U.S. $265 million for coal-mine safety in 2004 and closed illegal and dangerous mines and pits. The death rate has decreased from 5.77 miners per million tons of coal produced in 2000 to 3.081 in 2004, the government reported.

But cases of small and large mining accidents continue to come up frequently in the Chinese media.

In order to make this film, Li himself faced danger working in a mine and visited many other mines. But his movie is not just about coal miners. He portrays Chinese people's struggle to catch up with the fast changes of a capitalist economy, through karaoke girls, masseuses, day-laborers, and coal mining bosses.

Introducing his film, Li states, "Any country needs to promote its bright and glorious side. But is it not true that the exposition and critique of the dark and ugly sides of human nature and society can in fact promote progress and development of the society even more?"
©2006 OhmyNews

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