It seems unfit to write a substantial piece on a movie without explaining its basic premise and the plot. So here it goes: Blind Shaft (2003, Chinese (Mandarain), Director: Li Yang) begins with the two central characters of the movie (as we discover later) Tang and Song speaking with a fellow miner in a coal mine. As they talk about his longing to return home, they hit him over the head killing him and make it look like an accident. They come out of the mine and start acting as if the dead was the brother of Tang. After some shrewd negotiations they manage to extort twenty eight grand from the mine captain to hush up the matter. They leave the mine soon after and go on a spending spree enjoying the pleasures of life. Soon they run out of money and as they stand in town among the crowd waiting for work opportunities, they stumble into a young 16 year-old boy and it is only inevitable that they immediately see in him their new victim. They get him to memorize a new name and ask him to lie about his age. They take him to the mine as the nephew of Tang and plan to kill him off at an opportune moment and make a killing from his death.
An unknown death: is forgetting denial of justice?
An unknown death: is forgetting denial of justice?
Blind Shaft the name itself would seem to suggest not only the dark cold mine shaft cut off from the rest of the world but also a place so dark and isolated that it is beyond the reach of the law and justice. A place where neither there is “no union, no safety standards, pitifully low wages, no law given such an environment, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that the worst aspects of humanity rise to the surface.” For all the state and its law knows the mines have been closed after being considered too dangerous and don’t even exist. The workers working there are of course then the “non existent non people”.
The person who is chosen as the target by the duo is obviously someone who is alone and has no other friend or relative working with him. In all possibility even his family is also not aware where he is. There is no one who knows the story of his life. No one would come to know when he dies that who it was that died; that is who other than a nameless and faceless mineworker. If the only impact of a death left in the world is in the memories of the dead, then perhaps someone who dies an unknown death is not dead at all. In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawk go to a cemetery, which does not have the names of the dead on the tombstones. No one knows who the dead were. Most probably they were dead from capsized boats and suicides at the beginning of the 20th century. It is called the cemetery of no name. She says to him, “….if none of your family or friends knew you were dead…its like not really being dead. The people could invent the best and the worst for you.”
In one instance in blind shaft, Song is quite disturbed by the possibility that Song the kid that they plan to kill might be the son of one of their earlier victims. He does not want his entire family line to be ended by killing the kid. The family line is not about the gene pool. It means to keep alive the name of the family; to keep alive the memories of the dead. If the entire family line would be wiped out, there would be no one to remember the dead. That seems to Song as being a greater injustice than actually killing a man.
In Blind Shaft, there is no justice for the dead because firstly they are not dead (because their friends and family do not know that they are dead) and secondly because no one alive except their killers know that they were murdered. As far as the law is concerned it does not know that they are dead or they were or that they existed in the first place.
So of course, there is no hope for justice for those whose death has also been forgotten or rather not registered in the memory at all. That is no justice before the law but there is always narrative justice.
The Villains: or rather the victims?
Somewhere down the line in the movie one starts feeling for the killer duo. They are not exactly maniacal blood thirsty criminals. For them it seems to be just the only possible way of making a decent living and supporting their families. Well, they are quite cold blooded in the sense that they do not feel sympathy for their victim or suffer from guilt pangs but they do not enjoy it as well. They have a rather a very business like attitude and a meticulous routine for everything right down to the lines of conversation with the soon to be deceased just before he is murdered. But as the movie unfold you realise that in the land of abject poverty, lawlessness of the greedy mine owners and callous ‘hand in glove’ agents of law, they are indeed walking on a thin line between survival and elimination. Even when they are extracting the money from the mine owners they have to be careful not to ask for too much because if it would be cheaper for the mine owner to kill both of them off and instead pay the cops to hush up the matter, the ruthless mine owner would not hesitate from doing so. In a dog eats dog world, they are at a quite low rung in the food chain.
Narrative Justice in Blind Shaft
In a piece of fiction whether on paper or movie screen, it is possible to do justice even when the law has failed to do so. This is what is called ‘poetic’ or narrative justice- perhaps a literary equivalent of the ‘divine justice’ in real life. So the good guys have to win and the bad guys have to lose (unless of course one is making a movie like Zodiac where winning or losing are quite immaterial).
So Blind Shaft also employs narrative justice to make the ending of an otherwise bleak and uncomforting movie rather ‘just’ and acceptable. The killers get their ‘due’ and the innocent not only escapes unharmed but also earns a substantial amount from the death of his ‘would have been’ killers. It is quite ironical that the contract that Tang and Song enter into with the mine owner to make money from the death of the kid actually ends up in earning money for the kid. Although one can feel sorry for Song who actually develops traces of affection for the kid and is reluctant to kill him and the story is as harsh to him as it is to Tang who remains dispassionate, focussed and rather cruel. But then hey, Song still has to pay for his past deeds, right? So the way he meets his end is quite ‘just’ as per the statutes of narrative justice.
If retribution is the only manifestation of justice then narrative justice delivers justice quite efficiently and effectively. All the victims of Song and Tang who did not have access to law or justice get redemption in fell swoop through narrative justice by their dying of each other’s hands.
PS: This was published in Silhouette Vol. VI