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Wages of fear 

Blind Shaft makes noir plot into mining expose

Yang Li's Blind Shaft takes its title from a flimsy elevator that lowers workers into a Chinese coal mine. During the opening credits, the camera captures the miners' point of view as they look up at a gap of daylight that gets smaller as they descend until dark-ness obliterates it.

Blind Shaft discovers a moral blindness at the bottom of the pit. The film follows a pair of itinerant coal miners who run a lethal con game that's no less callous than modern China's rapacious experiment with capitalism. Outrage fuels Yang's story, which hits pay dirt as both a furious piece of social commentary and a soberly paced film noir.

Early in the film, we see three miners take a breather and gossip about sex, until one casually kills another. The survivors collapse part of the mine and rush out, the murderer wailing that a cave-in killed his brother. After the accident, the two surviving miners haggle over compensation money. Soft-spoken, bearded Song (Yi Xiang Li) serves as the go-between with the mine's crooked boss and the victim's sad-faced brother, Tang (Shuangbao Wang). The duo eventually accepts a cash reward that's meant not as worker's comp, but as a payoff to keep Tang's family from notifying the authorities and safety inspectors.

The two miners leave with cash in hand, but at a seedy nearby town, we discover that the murdered man wasn't Tang's brother after all, but a patsy who was lured into the duo's scam. It's a cold-blooded con even by the severe standards of film noir, yet Blind Shaft asserts that China's economy is no less amoral.

Shuangbao Wang gives Tang the cynicism of Humphrey Bogart at his most harsh. When Tang meets a new mark, 16-year-old Yuan (Baoqiang Wang), he sidles up with the cobra charm of a pimp meeting a runaway at a bus station. Baoqiang delivers his lines with such a nasal squeak that the boy seems doomed to be prey for somebody, and the partners convince him to pass as Song's nephew.

Yuan's innocence increasingly troubles Song, whom Yi Xiang portrays as distracted by his conscience. He worries about the future of his own teenage son and wires home his ill-gotten gains whenever possible. Tang frets that Song will lose his nerve and their scheme will fall apart.

Blind Shaft depicts a China under Communist control in name only -- the shabby marketplaces, industrial wastelands and dog-eat-dog attitudes suggest free enterprise at its worst. Like John Sayles' Matewan, the film uncovers corporate malfeasance and deadly working conditions. "China has a shortage of everything but people," snaps one callous mine boss.

For the poverty-stricken Chinese, sexuality becomes just another transaction. Several scenes unfold in tiny, dismal brothels, where hookers and johns find a passionless camaraderie similar to greasy spoon waitresses chatting up diners. Killing time in one cupboard of a room, Song sings "Long Live Socialism" on a karaoke machine, and two prostitutes teach the partners bawdy new lyrics that mock all economic systems.

Yang deliberately keeps the mine scenes underlit and builds suspense through uncertainty -- you literally don't see the deathblows when they come. But Blind Shaft's crime plot, however compelling, mostly serves as a vehicle for the writer/director's reportage, which involved risking his own neck to research China's illegal mines.

Blind Shaft won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival in 2003, yet was banned in China, where the government forbid Yang from making more films. As the resume of a debut filmmaker, Blind Shaft displays Yang's talents as a cinema verite muckraker and a fiendishly clever builder of plots. We could use a worker like him.

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