Images from Blind Mountain:
The first time Xuemei has power is when she becomes pregnant. The mother begs her to keep the child.
With motherhood, we see Xuemei at peace in the setting. She is also filmed against warm colors and backgrounds.
The ineffective police are unable to control the villagers. Like the con men of Blind Shaft, the villagers come from an era of socialism that has perverted the new capitalist system and commoditized the lives of people.
A hardened Xuemei cuts her hair, losing her innocence. She will now do anything to leave, including submitting to Degui.
Yet, like Yuan in Blind Mountain, Xuemei is educated and focuses on reading. These films suggest education is one of the only saving graces in contemporary China. Degui, who lack redeeming characteristics, criticizes Xuemei, “You just read those stupid books! Feed the pigs!”
Li Yang’s Blind Mountain also explores ways in which migrant characters meet conflicting demands of globalization and family. In terms of Chow’s sentimental situations, the narrative uses all the concepts of togetherness/ separation, family harmony (or lack thereof), and biological reproduction. As in Blind Shaft, family members are again a commodity. The Huang family purchases Xuemei to provide a wife for their son Degui, as well as a womb to continue the Huang family line. In purchasing Xuemei, they separate her from her own family and also cause another drama of separation. The relation to globalization is implied. The isolated village is practically pre-modern, shut off from the developed coastal region of China and stubbornly clannish in its interactions with outsiders. It is a village left behind in China’s development.
The key location of the sentimental in Blind Mountain is the “imperative to reproduce.” Xuemei’s value as a commodity is contingent on her ability to reproduce. As an educated girl from a larger city, she is the fertile future of China: fertile because of her traits associated with globalization — education, youth, urbanity — and because of her femaleness/primitiveness. Her womb, her sexuality, her oppressed/subaltern subject positioning. She is in many ways not dissimilar to the pigs bred on her captors’ farm: her sole purpose in being purchased is to breed future farmers for the Huangs. Even though by the time Xuemei is pregnant she has cheated on her husband with his cousin, her in-laws do not care about the father’s identity. Mrs. Huang begs Xuemei not to cause an abortion, crying plaintively,
In other words, a Huang is a Huang. While the continuation of the Huang family line rests in Xuemei’s hands at that point, she later has no claim to the child. When Xuemei finally escapes at the end, she is notably unable to take her son. After the child’s manufacture, Xuemei’s work is done, but her child—the product—must remain.[open endnotes in new window]
Like Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain depicts a society that has acclimated to and surpassed the ruthless market system, trading the bodies of human beings and purchasing “family.” Xuemei is a commodity, her status as such usually defended by her “cost.” Whenever she attempts to escape the village, her in-laws cite the amount of money they spent to purchase her, an argument that proves effective time and time again. When a real family member (her father) arrives to retrieve her, the community does not recognize his legitimacy, instead arguing that the only acceptable way to secure her retrieval is, in effect, a refund. Xuemei’s father recognizes and resigns himself to this legitimacy, weeping over the money he has already spent to find his daughter and lamenting the fact that he now has to find more to purchase her back. In Blind Mountain, Xuemei’s market value usurps her role as a daughter and her rights as a human being.
Even Xuemei learns to regard her body as a commodity. After simply running away does not work, she willingly sells her body for her escape. She starts her affair with Decheng, Degui’s cousin, in the hopes that she can exchange love/sex for freedom. Each tryst begins at Xuemei’s insistence with false professions of love, ending with her inquiries about the escape plan. However, Decheng is an ineffective savior who avoids taking action, is caught and leaves the village. In the scene after he leaves, Xuemei changes tactics, no longer relying on seduction and sentimental feelings such as “love” as a tactic. She sells sexual favors to a local shopkeeper for 50 yuan, and very nearly escapes in the following scene. This attempt is her most effective escape attempt in the film—in the new market economy, money talks.
Indeed, in many recent Urban Generation films, prostitution is a major theme. The sexualized/commoditized female body becomes a metaphor for Chinese modernity and nationality. Gail Hershatter establishes the symbiotic relationship between the status of women and the status of the nation:
During times of colonization by foreign powers, the victimized woman was a symbol for a China “…threatened with ‘penetration’ by Western imperialism.”
In Chinese films of the 1930s, such as Goddess (1934, dir. Wu Yonggang), Chinese filmmakers filmed crises of nationhood through the bodies of marginalized females. In these earlier migrant films the woman is Han (racial majority of China), yet her presentation evokes minority discourse by virtue of the ways in which she is sexualized and eroticized. She is forced to capitalize on her sexualized body, yet she learns to succumb and adapt to the commoditization of herself. Perhaps in this way, she is sentimental in the sense of Chow’s “mood of endurance.” The migrant female in these films ultimately capitalizes on her own body in order to achieve her goals, attempting to maneuver her victimized position to one of (questionable) power.
Li Yang also ties the “imperative to reproduce” to the community through scenes of communal complicity. First, he demonstrates the unified front of the village (and also dryly satirizes socialist communalism) in the scene where Xuemei is raped. While playing cards with friends, friends goad husband Huang Degui to walk home (20 feet away) and finally consummate their relationship. Xuemei’s violent reaction deters him and he fails to rape her, only to return immediately at the insistence of his parents. His parents hold Xuemei down, stripping her and forcing her legs apart, only leaving the room once the rape has commenced. Thus the rape is shown as a communal activity, first suggested by the men at the poker game and then enforced by Degui’s parents. The community is physically present and verbally complicit.
Later, when Xuemei's father arrives to claim her, everyone in the village again unites in a proletariat struggle session reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. The villagers become the revolutionary peasant masses, their shouts mimicking the communal hysteria of an earlier era. However, the rhetoric they use is that of capitalism—purchases, receipts, refunds. Li Yang uses the collectivist village’s rape and purchase of Xuemei to expose a society struggling to adapt to a market system after a socialist education. The villagers invoke collective socialist might and capitalist logic at random—their ideological consistency hopelessly flawed. Both their socialist and capitalist arguments prevail over Xuemei’s basic human rights.
Even education—the saving grace within Blind Shaft—is problematic in Blind Mountain. The teacher, Decheng, is an ineffectual savior more intent on betraying his cousin Degui and using Xuemei for sex than in his job as a teacher. Xuemei asks Decheng if he enjoys teaching and Decheng retorts, “The pay is low and often late…It is meaningless.” Xuemei also appears to be ambivalent about her education. She teaches village children but finds little satisfaction in teaching. Her education—which she gratefully describes in the first scene of the film—was not sufficient to save her from the plotting of the villagers, nor was her intelligence enough to plan a successful escape. Thus in Blind Mountain, there is no “togetherness” in family, education is not a saving grace, and humans regard themselves as commodities. It is an unrelenting view of a hypocritical and inconsistent society, wherein all overtures to the “homely interior” are conflicted and confused by the destructive “exterior” forces of a transitioning China.
Blind Mountain has been described as a lesser film than Blind Shaft due to its one-sided characterizations of the villagers and repetitious scenes. Li’s film has been described as realistic and might be said to be an example of naturalism:
However, despite these attempts at realism, the film succumbs to some of the simplistic binaries that Li avoided in Blind Shaft, such as rural/urban, uneducated/educated, and primitive/civilized—there is little attempt on the part of the filmmaker to humanize and complicate the villagers. Moreover, the tension of Blind Shaft—Song’s changing morality and Yuan’s potential spiritual “pollution”—is not present in Blind Mountain. The villagers do not change their positions, no one shows sympathy for Xuemei, and Xuemei herself never changes her point of view on the village. Therefore, without change or tension, the film lacks the drama, depth and moral ambiguity of Blind Shaft.
In making a film about the complicated positioning of rural workers in a transnational era, director Li Yang’s own subject positioning is conflicted. On the one hand, Li is a German citizen with access to education and mobility decidedly unavailable to the subjects of his films. The funding and audience for his films are also both privileged and foreign. Despite distribution in China, his films are not well known outside of film and academic circles. On the other hand, Li is bringing the plight of marginalized populations to a wider, albeit elite/international, audience. Li seems genuinely concerned about the predicament of marginalized workers. The word “blind” in the films’ titles asking audiences to pay attention and “see” the social issues involved. His films, with plots revolving around migration, criminality, and amorality, also stress the moral vacuum that has accompanied China’s development.
In Li Yang’s films, migrants are transfixed by the idea of the home/family, or jia. Yet, as Chow notes, these characters are depressingly and ironically trapped in a contemporary era marked by homelessness. Throughout Blind Shaft and Blind Mountain, kinship/family is explored both in positive practices (the search for family, migration to support the family, education) and negative practices (kidnapping and rape to continue family lines; family members monetized).
Women, perhaps because they are symbolically associated with the concept of “home,” are often victimized in these films. In that sense, the sentimental also revolves around the figure of a woman (as womb, as wife, as nation), who is for many of the male characters a perceived “key” to resolving the conflict between the exterior (globalization) and the interior (home/family). Thus, the attempt to find a “homely interiority” is divergent and messy during the globalization process—what can “family” mean in the midst of chaos?