The sight of three sad-faced laborers descending into a Chinese mine hints that "Blind Shaft" is going to be a P.C. heart-tugger a mopey exposé, perhaps, of unsafe working conditions. While it's true that shining a light on blue-collar issues was paramount to writer/director Li Yang who reportedly shot the film without the permission of the Chinese film bureau and got it banned throughout the country as a result he's couched his concerns in a story with a markedly sinister edge.
That becomes clear the minute chummy miners Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) casually murder the third man, whacking him in the head when no one else is looking and surfacing to proclaim him the victim of a terrible accident. Having previously (and fraudulently) registered their fallen comrade as Tang's brother, they know they're due a compensatory windfall. Collecting their "rightful" bereavement monies and splitting the scene, Song and Tang are free to plot their next scam while spending the dough on the staples of life like hookers.
A scene in which the triumphant con men and two ladies of the evening sing a sniggering round of "Long Live Socialism" typifies the brazen, anticapitalist critique the filmmaker (adapting the novel Sacred Wood by Liu Qingbang) is after. Despite the visual murk of the mine scenes (and the occasionally illegible subtitles), the movie is a fairly straightforward piece of work. Sometimes, that directness is easy to mistake, as when Song and Tang pick their next patsy: Yuan (Wang Baoqiang), an innocent 16-year-old who's seeking work to fund his stalled education. The kid's gleaming purity is enough to sow unease even among Song and Tang, who can't agree if they should spare his life after all.
To our Western sensibilities, though, Yuan is an incredible Pollyanna: After the men force him into losing his virginity, he's so distraught that he nearly commits suicide. Hollywood-bred wisdom dictates that he must be a devious little incubus planning a table-turning of epic proportions. Right?
The disparity between our mental rhythms and the script's gets in the way of ingesting what "Blind Shaft" has to say about unchecked opportunism. Instead, experiencing the movie becomes a case of waiting for the other shoe to drop while wondering if it's dropped already. The process isn't smoothed by the picture's ill-informed dubbing, which includes such faux-colloquial howlers as, "What's damn taking so long?" Just damn give me a minute and I'll tell you, damn.