BY GARY M. KRAMER | The remarkable “Blind Mountain” tackles the subject of human trafficking with tremendous restraint and control. Set in the early 1990s, in northern China, writer and director Li Yang portrays how money and corruption enable men in rural villagers to buy women, for marriage and breeding, and also painfully captures the despair of the victims, who often resign themselves to their fate because given the forces of social conformity, there is, in reality, little chance of escape.
Yang's agonizing film tells the story of the young Bai Xuemiei (Huang Lu), who challenges an insular community to gain her freedom. As the film opens, Bai, who is jobless, thinks she has been hired by a medical company and will be able to help her family pay off their debts.
Directed by Li Yang
Opens Mar. 12
In fact, she is drugged, kidnapped, and taken to another village where she has been sold to Huang Degui (Yang Youan) as his wife.
With heartbreaking scrutiny, Li Yang explores trafficking in women.
Bai's efforts to reason with her new family are futile; they offer to let her go only if she repays the money they spent to buy her. Of course she cannot do that and so is held prisoner by the Deguis, who beat her when she misbehaves. Challenged by his fellow villagers as to whether he has yet slept with his new wife, Huang has to enlist the aid of his parents to hold Bai down so he can rape her. She is prized not as a companion but for her child-bearing abilities.
“Blind Mountain” is certainly a difficult film to watch; the tragic circumstances multiply and Bai endures one crushing blow after another. But Huang Lu's fantastic performance as Bai is compelling. The screen newcomer is full of intensity and raw emotion – from the fear and anger conveyed by her eyes and body language to the absolute expressionlessness she conveys as she is sexually abused.
As Bai's determination grows stronger, she makes several attempts to gain her freedom. On her first attempt, she runs away, but unable to get a ride into town, she is captured by Huang and some villagers in a jeep. Yang shoots this scene from above, magnifying the agony of Bai's situation. Her husband warns her, “Bitch, I can make you obey me,” though it is clear that all he can really do is block her freedom.
Hopelessness is palpable throughout “Blind Mountain.” Even pledges of help — from a mailman who promises to get a letter to her father, and from a friendly schoolteacher who accepts Bai's sexual favors — come to naught.
When she gains the trust of a young boy in the village, whom she tutors, Bai finally learns how to manipulate the system to her advantage. Yet Bai's wits only get her so far, and seeing her freedom snatched away at the last minute is anguishing.
Yang's portrait of rural village life is authentic, marked by the slow rhythms of Huang's mother's loom, the feeding of the animals, and the preparation of food. It is a simple, hard life, and these villagers are simple, hard people. The filmmaker does not excuse their reprehensible behavior, but a scene in which the Deguis are forced to pay a pig tax when they have no pigs shows how they too are exploited.
Not much can be revealed about the film's strong third act without spoiling its impact, but the stinging social criticism of the film's first hour echoes loudly as “Blind Mountain” builds to its dramatic and abrupt conclusion. This is a film that will leave viewers shaken and utterly disturbed by what they have experienced.