Human Rights of Passage
By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Li Yang, China, Kino
In the wake of Hostel: Part II and any other sex slavery film du jour, the synopsis for Li Yang's Blind Mountain sounds desperately lurid: With the promise of some quick cash, pretty, young, college-educated Bai Xuemei follows some new acquaintances into a remote rural village in the Shaanxi region of China, where she's drugged, kidnapped, and sold into an illegal forced marriage. Unable to reason with her new husband, Huang Degui, his parents, or the corrupt local government, Bai is held in a Kafkaesque, but all too real nightmare, coerced into labor, sexual compliance, and even childbirth with little hope for justice or escape.
But this sort of glib synopsis would mask the intentions of a patient, politically subtle film with a good deal more to say about contemporary China as a whole than Eli Roth's film about the Slovakian black market in particular. Not simply exploitation with an air of social conscience, Yang's film is rather more like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in that it uses as its raw material a contentious women's rights issue to drive home a broader point about the political and the personal. Neither Mungiu's film (which takes place in the Eighties) nor Yang's film (set in the early Nineties) is purely an "issue film," crusading to affect public policy, but each focuses on a specific issue to draw attention to the ways in which impersonal government affects one on a deeply personal level. 4 Months is considerably more incisive in this regard, partly because of Mungiu’s empathy with his characters and perhaps because of the relative touchiness of the debate into which he enters. But Li's film is nonetheless forceful and provocative, even if it fails to strike as deeply empathic a note.
Once Bai's “employers” abandon her in the village, the film follows a winding and slightly absurdist path, as the heroine tries to convince her new in-laws and all those around her of the injustice of her plight. But the villagers, more concerned with the needs of the family that has paid for her and the wider practices of the community as a whole, conspire to keep her trapped in her situation. The mountain that she must traverse in order to get to the coveted road to freedom continually serves as symbol of a prevailing chauvinist stubbornness, a blindness to the needs and rights of the individual. Few characters show any empathy toward Bai, save for other, similarly acquired wives and the occasional horny villager. With some fleeting hope, Bai begins an affair with her husband's cousin, the local schoolteacher and the only somewhat educated man for miles, but he proves no more helpful, a grim indication that education in itself is no match for ingrained ways of life.
With its complex (and, at times, deeply problematic) intersection of an educated outsider with the stubborn realities of rural life, Blind Mountain explicitly harkens back to those classic works from the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, like Yellow Earth and Sacrificed Youth, that detail what happens when Party-indoctrinated characters encounter the rural peasantry in their own context. In those films, there is always a subtly jarring contrast between how the Party envisions the peasantry and how it actually exists. Here, in gauzy shots of grey and yellow mountainous backdrops, this is represented as implacable and inexorable nature, bearing some resemblance to the flat landscapes of Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth. Blind Mountain, in turn, literalizes this connection between peasant and environment in its title and in the near–fairy tale quality of the inescapable village, and, like his predecessors, Li is concerned with how China's ideas of “progress” still bend to the needs of tradition, and how these traditions are themselves reified by the economic needs of those who practice them.
The peasants in Blind Mountain, terrifying and seemingly barbaric though they may be, are merely applying themselves to the status quo. "Fuck jail," one character says, "in the city, people pay even more [for their wives]." And in any case, they have an imperative to work their land and make offspring to perpetuate their line. In the service of this, Huang's parents goad their son into action, even holding Bai down so that he can rape her. But as gruesome and unpleasant as Blind Mountain at times becomes, its goal is not so much to demonize this way of life—one which it so often pauses to identify as undereducated and therefore pitiable—as to criticize the slow pace of the government to correct it and the ineffectuality of those local figures (teachers, policemen, and village chiefs) who make fleeting efforts to help. The film finally suggests that the mountain that separates rural China from its more progressive iteration is guarded by blindness on both sides.