In his sights: Director Li Yang turned his attention back to China in 'Blind Mountain.' (Photo courtesy Li Yang)

Hard Look at China in 'Blind Mountain'

Judy Stone July 11, 2008

There are at least two Chinese words for "blind:" "xia" for the physically impaired and "mang" for those who cannot or will not see ugly or uncomfortable truths. But director Li Yang spent years in Germany before he could make two films intended to open Chinese eyes to the wretched lives of women for sale and miners-turned-murderers in their lust for money and survival.

Unfortunately, in their new capitalist/communist world, most Chinese citizens will probably not be given the opportunity to see either the 2003 mining horror/suspense story Blind Shaft (Mang Jing) or the kidnapping and sexploitation of a college student in Blind Mountain (Mang Shan)—not because of censorship, but for the same reasons American arthouse films don’t reach their publics: commercial pressures. However, Blind Mountain, a gripping fictional tale inspired by a true case that is only one of similar thousands, will open today on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. And there is still another Li production to come: Mang Liu about the two million homeless children cast adrift on city streets begging for help.

In answering questions sent by e-mail to Li in China and asked by his Kino film distributors in New York, the director didn’t mince any words. "Traditional Chinese ethics and values are facing a total collapse. In a society where material pursuits and money reign supreme, people are losing their basic values of conscience, love, and empathy. They have become selfish, greedy, and brutal. Money has become their only yardstick for evaluating everything."

Li has noted government statistics that cite 80,555 rescued women who had been kidnapped from 1991 to 1995, often to rural or mountain areas. A magazine article called his attention to a famous trial that took place in Guangdong Province’s highest criminal court. The defendant was Wang Xiuying, a young country girl from Dongbei Province, who was kidnapped and taken to Luo Ding village in 1994 and sold into marriage with Guo Meinan, a 49-year old peasant. When she wouldn’t give in to him sexually, she was raped with the help of his family. Her appeal to the local police station was dismissed as a fraud. The villagers thought that since Guo spent a lot of money to buy her, she should be obedient and faithful. When she gave birth, she only wanted to live peacefully—but her in-laws abused her so much that she finally couldn’t bear it. In revenge, she poured a bottle of sulfuric acid on the two children of Guo’s brother and sister-in-law, also injuring five other primary school students. In her 1999 trial, she was sentenced to "extended death for mayhem," but the death sentence was temporarily suspended.

Inspired by that case and subsequent interviews with many kidnapped "brides" from all walks of life, as well as traffickers and law enforcers, he found that the province of Sichuan in south-western China had the highest number of victims. Very often, the whole village would conspire to keep the women imprisoned, but he couldn’t find the answer to a question that still plagues him: "Are they all bad, evil people?"

Finally, he wrote the fictional story of Bai Xuemei, shot in documentary style. Anxious to help her parents out of debt, she accepts a ride with strangers thinking they will buy medicinal herbs to sell at a higher price elsewhere. Instead after a harrowing ride, they arrive at a tiny mountainside village where she soon learns she has been sold to a farming family who conspire to arrange her "marriage" to a 40-year old bachelor. When she tries to resist him, she is raped, beaten, and abused at every sign of resistance. An escape attempt with a man she had counted on fails. Even after she gives birth to a son, another tragedy awaits. One version of the film with a "happy ending" has been shown to a few select audiences in China, according to a recent visitor here.

But one question still baffles Li: despite the difficulties, why didn’t more women try to escape? His own 1988 "escape" from China (where he was an actor in the China Youth Arts Theater) to Germany changed his perspective on the world and life. "I discovered that many of my ideas were fragmented and one-sided." Not so surprising for someone bought up in a communist state. "Going abroad opened my horizons so I would not be like the frog sitting at the bottom of a well. But you still have to set standards for what is good and not good.’‘

He may have learned those standards the hard way. Born in Xian in 1959, he was the son of two theater actors, and had a happy, comfortable life until all that was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution.

"When I was 13, my father was persecuted to death. This was a massive blow to my family. My youngest brother was only one year old. I had to look after my two brothers more. I put my childhood quickly behind me. Because I was the oldest, I was responsible for the whole family. I cooked and cared for them and I lost the happiness and freedom I should have had at that age. Life was terribly hard. This gave me a special way of thinking. My determination made me try to do everything even better and make every effort to succeed."

Although Blind Shaft won the Silver Bear Award at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival and Blind Mountain was in the Official Selection at the 2007 Cannes festival, Li is said to maintain a sense of irony and humor about the fact that he is better known internationally than in China. He calls his 14 years in Germany where he became a citizen "the most beautiful part of my life." While there he studied German literature, dramatic theory, film direction, acted in German TV, and began writing and directing documentaries. But he finally returned to China "because in my bones, I’m still a Chinese artist. My films come from inside which is a Chinese sensibility. Basically I’m a very pure Chinese."

That purity comes laced with dissent. "The most lacking thing in Chinese movies," Li believes, "is the spirit of criticism. Movies are only good when there are lots of conflicts in them. There is a lack of good art movies and good blockbusters. Nowdays our film industry is still like one in a planned economy. The so-called producers were all Party officials originally. We lack a vigorous movie industry. One concern is that more and more blockbusters from foreign countries are introduced to China every year. The higher the Americans’ salaries are, the more expensive the movie tickets are in China. And we need a tolerant environment in the movie industry."

Known for the black humor in his writing, Li noted that "the the government can be mad at a little joke in a movie although the joke might just be made to bring people a laugh. As a matter of fact, no one is willing to see the backward side of our country."

Except maybe the director Li Yang, and that’s no laughing matter.