It takes a village to perpetrate a crime in Blind Mountain, Li Yang's disturbingly intimate look at human trafficking in rural China. Writer and director Yang approaches his subject with the urgency of a reformer, but there's a muted quality to his outrage. Like the Italian neorealists, he uses a stripped-down style, and focuses on the details of one woman's ordeal to illuminate the moral corruption in which a whole society is complicit.
As the film opens, recent college graduate Bai Xuemei (Huang Lu) is traveling deeper and deeper into a remote mountain area of northern China with a man and woman she believes will be her boss and co-worker in an herbal medicine business. She's filled with a giddy sense of adventure, and relieved that she's finally found a job that will help pay off her family's mounting debts. Exhausted and groggy when they arrive at a hardscrabble farm, Bai doesn't notice how she's suddenly the center of attention.
When she awakens the next morning, it's with a feeling of dread that quickly turns to terror. She has been sold to the family as a bride for their loutish 40-year-old son Huang Degui (Yang Youan), but what she's really become is chattel: breeding stock and slave labor. What Bai soon learns with a deepening sense of revulsion is that everyone around her is committed to her remaining that way, from the glib village leader to her husband's parents, who hold down her thrashing limbs while their son rapes her.
By setting the story in the early 1990s, Yang puts some distance between these events and contemporary China, but he's otherwise unrelenting in his portrayal of a mercenary society where money fuels everything and corruption is ingrained. In this modern feudal village, Bai and her fellow kidnapped "wives" are imprisoned by consensus, a brutal adherence to tradition and male dominance.
Like The Violin, Blind Mountain cloaks its horrors in exquisite visuals. Cinematographer Jong Lin (Eat Drink Man Woman) imbues Yang's naturalism with a painterly use of color. He infuses the Qinling Mountains with a beauty that only heightens Bai's anguish, creating an idyllic vision stripped of idealism.
No longer able to determine her own future, Bai chooses defiance over acceptance, but Yang knows the odds are stacked against her. Blind Mountain is personal tragedy on a grand scale: a woman's fate determined by the tyranny of the mob.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DNA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 20, and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, March 21, and Saturday, March 22. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].