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A masterful, difficult, frustrating, beautiful film
Where to begin with this one? I was tempted half-way through it to log on here and add it to the "100 greatest Chinese films" thread but thought 'Nah, it's too young'. I thought it was a film made by someone with a blind spouse who wanted to depict what it's like to be blind. You know, one of those kinda films. But the people in this film are not shiny happy people. And, btw, it has little to do with the fact that they are all professional massagers.
Here's how I judge this is a good film: I often throw something on around midnight, knowing I will fall asleep soon, just to get a feel for what it's like. I couldn't look away from this thing. In fact, I immediately started watching it a second time--a further test of how good I think a film is: how soon do I start wanting a re-watch? If I think about it before I've finished the first viewing, the film is kicking butt.
The film has a few "sighted" actors who do a good job of acting blind, but they kind of stand out because they are better looking than the blind non-actors. (The film goes meta on that point, too).
It starts off like it's going to be about some kid who loses his sight in a car accident and is told it's only temporary. He eventually learns he was being lied to and won't get his sight back. He tries, unsuccessfully, to kill himself. This part is narrated in voice-over by a (non-character) woman who also reads the opening credit roll and returns throughout. Usually films resort to voice-over as a last resort, but it works here. The guy takes a job at a massage establishment run by two blind men and staffed by all blind or partially blind people. The film then morphs into an ensemble piece about several of them: their loves and lusts, not so much their blindness. So it's a film about 'standard' things that go on in the lives of people who happen to be blind. A couple of the blind women steal the show.
The amazing (and perhaps frustrating to some) thing about the film is how it does give you an idea of what it's like to be blind. You really get a sense that things are just swirling around rather than being observed. The film's notion of focus is genius. There are lots of truly emotional moments in the film (only slightly off-center from what we're used to because the characters are blind) but they aren't maudlin or melodramatic at all. They are more darkish and almost creepy. This is no after-school special. There are scenes where the central dialog takes place off camera, or, right when a scene screams out for some resolve it's simply dropped. That happens a lot. Very weird. There's scenes where you feel the discomfort for the characters who, during a moment of drama, can't read body language or facial expressions. It punches. Whoever shot this film should win an award. The direction, editing, and cinematography are wildly inventive.
I didn't get the ending of the film but the last shot is a truly beautiful smile.
I was all psyched up to find a new director I could look forward to seeing more from. Turns out Ye Lou (of Suzhou River and Summer Palace fame) directed this thing. Everything makes sense now-- and by that I mean this is a masterful, difficult, frustrating, beautiful film. It has a few big blunders, but ALL great films do.
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