Lou Ye is a famous screenwriter and director commonly grouped with the “Sixth Generation” directors of Chinese cinema from the post-1990 era. His latest film, Blind Massage was nominated for the Golden Bear award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival and won 6 awards including Best Script at the 51st Taiwan Golden Horse Award. The flim seeks to tell the stories of a group of blind people who work at a massage center in Nanjing, China.
Although the narratives are somewhat overly dramatic, Blind Massage vividly presents the group image of these people, as well as the smell and texture of China during the ‘90s. More importantly, it explores the philosophical essence of blindness, especially in terms of love and beauty.
Xiao Ma lost his sight when he was nine because of a car accident. After a failed suicide attempt, he eventually ended up in a blind massage center run by Sha Fuming. Here Xiao Ma worked and lived with people who are just like himself. Later, Xiao Ma met Xiao Kong, girlfriend of a new employee Dr. Wang, and Xiao Man, a prostitute working at a nearby hair salon. As these encounters took place, the massage center witnessed a series of changes.
The story happened in Nanjing at the end of last century. While known in America today for its Foreign Language High School and the school’s large amount of students admitted to prestigious American colleges, Nanjing at the time was like any other city in China.
The economy was becoming increasingly market-driven; state-owned enterprises were reformed and workers were laid off; millions of people started to buy stocks and open up their own businesses; colorful neon lights and various signboards replaced the unified grey buildings. It was in these streets that the characters of Blind Massage lived, and the film sucessfully puts them within their time by telling the audience both about their individual characteristics and about their era’s influence on them.
At the same time, the Tiananmen Movement was just a few years before, and the romance and idealism of that generation had not yet died out among Chinese youths. They write poetry, read Sartre, dance, drink. And Sha Fuming was one of them.
These characters and scenes from the film subtly presents the smell and texture of China at that period. As a realism film, such historical documentary value is not to be overlooked in comparison to the universal themes of its narrative and the artistic value of the film as a whole, especially for American audiences.
While it doesn’t focus on portraying the everyday differences of life in darkness than life with sight, the film does touch upon some more fundamental, philosophical implications of blindness.
One is beauty. Du Hong is the prettiest girl at the center, or so she is told by numerous customers. Yet she isn’t particularly happy when people give her such compliments: ”Do you think it means anything to me?” This rhetorical question is in fact asking for difficult answers. How can beauty be defined without visual references? What’s the boundary of beauty? And does it rely entirely on senses?
Another is love. Sha Fuming falls in love with Du Hong because of her alleged beauty, but Du Hong thinks that he’s only obsessed with an unknown concept. Xiao Ma couldn’t stop thinking about Xiao Kong because of her smell, but when he met Xiao Man and had sex with her, he easily tansferred these feelings to her.
Here another series of questions arises: does better visual capacity guarantee better judgment when it comes to love? Exactly what role does physical appearance play in human’s choice of romantic partners? What happens when appearance cannot be perceived? Unfortunately, however, the film hasn’t given these important questions the attention they deserve.
This lack of attention may be partly due to Lou Ye’s longtime enthusiasm for violence, sexuality, and dramatic narratives. From Suzhou River to Summer Palace, to the most recent Mystery, Lou Ye has never been shy about using these elements.
While they may have worked well in other films, the use of these elements in Blind Massage seems unnecessary and disturbing of the film’s realistic feel.
Instead of depicting the calm, uneventful, even dull everyday life of the characters, the film emphasizes several major dramas in their lives: Xiao Ma’s suicide attempt, Dr. Wang hurting himself with a knife in order to pay off his brother’s debt, Sha Fuming vomiting blood at the restaurant.
As a result of such focus, I was left with memories and understandings of a few very specific, extreme characters and events, as opposed to a more general impression of this group of blind people and their lives.
Similarly, Lou Ye’s camera language contributes to the extreme, dramatic taste of the work.
The camera is often shaky and wandering about; sometimes it moves without any cut when scenes change; close-ups shots are frequently so close to the face that it seems to be poking at the characters. And these shots weave together a picture of anxiety, chaos and drama.
While the film’s plot is certainly stimulating and its film language is idiosyncratic and memorable, it fails to realize its potential as a work documenting a special group of people living in a specific historical period in China.
However, despite its failure to live up to my taste, Blind Massage is definitely a film worth the time for Chinese and international audiences alike, because of its significant topic and because of Lou Ye’s unique position and style among the Six Generation directors of Chinese cinema.