While Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke (Still Life) sits on the fence, confused and ambivalent about how capitalism is transforming the ancient traditions of his country, director Li Yang knows what he thinks about the situation. Li’s second feature, Blind Mountain, is a look at a nation in moral decline.
Set in an isolated rural settlement in northern China during the early 1990s, the movie concerns Xuemei, an urban college graduate (Huang Lu) who is kidnapped and sold as a “wife” to Degui, a middle-aged bachelor (Yang Youan) living on his family’s farm. After a brief wedding celebration — during which the bride remains bound and gagged indoors — the reluctant groom is goaded into consummating the union. But he’s so cowardly that, when she fights him off, he enlists his parents to hold her down as he tears her clothes off. From there, things go downhill for Xuemei, with each of her escape attempts thwarted by the collective efforts of the community.
Watching Blind Mountain, it’s impossible not to think of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. But Von Trier’s sanctimonious fantasy of American inhumanity takes place, literally, on a black-and-white stage. Yang, in contrast, shows a more complex understanding of the motives behind cruelty. While his characters’ psychologies often feel too thinly drawn, the social conditions around them are unmistakably defined. Li’s China is a place where the notion of freedom has yet to reach the provinces, but where the market’s message of material desire has already taken root.
Serenely captured by cinematographer Jong Lin (Eat, Drink, Man, Woman), Blind Mountain portrays a sublime locale, ripe like its protagonist for exploitation.