College student Bai Xeumei (Lu Huang) took the job with the best hopes. The cost and sacrifice of her parents to sent her to college, along with the continued cost of sent her brother to school has taxed the family’s finances. Feeling the burden of this sacrifice, Bai takes a job for a medicine company, gathering and selling herbs in a remote village in the mountains of Northern China. When she wakes the next morning, her ID is missing; there is no trace of the people she arrived with, and the family of farmers tells her that her family as sold her to their son De Gui (Yang You'an).
The family Bai has been sold to includes an older father Huang Changyi (Jia Yinggao), his wife Ding (Zhang Yuling), and their son De Gui. The local schoolteacher Huang Decheng (He Yunie) is De Gui’s Cousin. Bai is locked away for days, unable to get anyone to listen or understand that her family did not sell her. She is constantly told that eventually she will get used to living there. Her non-cooperation escalates to rape, physical beating and her own attempt at suicide. Still, she is held against her will, with the local police unconcerned about looking into her alleged abduction.
Time passes and there are moments when it seems that Bai will escape her captivity one way (running away with the schoolteacher who takes a fancy to her), or another (the many letters she secretly gives to the mailman to her family). She cuts off her beautiful, impractically long cut and learns the chores of the farm. She befriends the kids in the village who are unable to afford school and becomes their teacher. But these acts of conformity are only done to give her the opportunity to try and escape once more.
In a film like this, it is easy to play Monday morning quarterback. Why did you trust this “friend”? Because Bai thought she was a friend. Why not just run away? Bai does, several times. But not knowing the terrain prevents her from getting very far. Why not go to the police, tell every stranger you can that you have been kidnapped? Bai does, but she has found herself in a culture where all her “husband” has to say is “My wife is losing her mind” and all Bai’s pleads for help are dismissed. Bai is in a world where one cigarette has more collateral than a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. Scary stuff boys and girls.
Blind Mountain is an emotionally brutal film. There is a scene where the wife, along with the father, help hold Bai down so that De Gui can rape her for the first time - the assumption being once she is pregnant, she won’t run. That image of the entire family contributing to this crime out of some backward sense of family duty just floored me. But it also drove home the dire and indeed barbaric circumstances that Bai has found herself in.
Blind Mountain is also a film about hope. Lu Huang fuels Bai with a tenacity and vulnerability that is simply brilliant. She is never beat down for long. And it is that tenacity, that refusal to be overcome with despair and darkness, as other kidnapped girls in the village have, that eventually leads to the one person who not corrupt in this primitive world.
You will see how it’s going to end about ten seconds before it does. (I actually said “Here it comes”, out loud. My apologizes to the folks around me, but I was enthralled.) Perhaps it is not the only way this film could end, but it certainly shows what a person can be driven to when pushed to their limits. I truly appreciate the way writer/director Yang Li chose to let the raw human drama play on the audience rather than coping out with a swelling, emotional soundtrack. The stark reality of Bai’s situation is frustrating and heartbreaking. And yet she never abandons hope. Now that’s what I call a triumph of the human spirit.
Blind Mountain (Mang Shan) is now screening at the AFI Film Festival, as part of the World Cinema series. The film is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.
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