While picking a Chinese film in celebration of lunar new year, I realised a disturbing phenomenon: most of the well-received Chinese films are overtly nostalgic. Thinking of the two phenomenal Chinese cinema releases recently, one (Yao Mao Zhuan) depicted the grandiose Tang Dynasty, the other (Fang Hua) portrays a group of dancers after cultural revolution, amazingly managing to avoid any political controversy.
These are made by two “fifth generation” directors who are famous for producing epic films during 1980s and 90s. While now, rather awkwardly, they are still doing similar things, nostalgic turns escapist, and the provoking quality in Farewell my Concubine (1993) and To Live (1994) becomes something to feel nostalgic about themselves.
But thankfully, there are still filmmakers risking the censorship to investigate “hidden” issues in contemporary China, the ‘sixth generation’ filmmakers are the radicals.
The film I finally picked is Blind Massage. The director, Lou Ye, is a leading figure among the sixth generation. There’s little gloss under his lens, but dingy neon lights flashing, messy street, and unattractive people living through strong and raw desires.
Blind Massage tells the gathering and falling apart of a blind massage clinic. As a collective portrait, it follows Xiao Ma working through his sexual desire, Sha’s confusion and longing for “beauty”, Wong’s struggle to get money for marriage: these protagonists face both realistic problems of surviving, and abstract problem of understanding without seeing.
The long hours in a massage clinic are not packed with drama, but always surrounded by sound of pouring rain: it’s a closed, exclusive community of blind people, although visited by sighted customers, it’s rarely disturbed by outsiders.
This approach sacrifices the potential conflicts between the “healthy” and the “disabled”, but creates an equal position for audience to see the protagonists as “normal” humans while living in a world of their own, thus clearing out the suspicion of being a “poverty porn” —as the subject marginalised group often evokes— and paint the emotional world of the blind with calm strokes.
While dealing with issue of reality, the film is powerfully stylised. The grainy, hallucinatory opening sequence disturbingly imitates Xiao Ma’s process of loosing sight and suffering of emotional trauma; correspondingly, when he regains his sight after being beaten, we enter his world through tumbling and constantly out of focus shots, atonal music and brushes of looming colours: he’s starting to see things, in an acute yet ambiguous way. Will it lead to salvation or identity confusion? The film gave a rather postmodern answer, or paraphrasing it, no answer at all.
It’s rare to see film stressing contemporary issue in Chinese cinema, and even rarer for social realism film to not sell poverty nor carry explicit political appeal. Blind Massage isn’t radical in political sense, but it does justice to the socially marginalised, by treating them as equal to audience.