There are two ways to take on Li Yang’s potent, concise “Blind Mountain” (2007), and both have horns: as the howling social-critique screed it was intended to be, and as a Chinese realist version of the “white trash” exploitation epics of the American ’60s and ’70s — which makes the dynamic of the story universally human, not exclusively Chinese. But Chinese it is in actuality, through and through: simply put, unemployed college grad Bai (Lu Huang) accepts a job to collect medicinal herbs in the remote northern country, and after landing in a secluded village wakes up to find herself literally sold into slavery, as a bought-and-paid-for bride for a local ne’er-do-well. Li’s approach is dead serious, and he’s helplessly critiquing not a single issue or socioeconomic condition, but the mercenary callousness of an entire people. I’ve never been to China, but the Chinese films I’ve seen recently (including Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life,” Li Yu’s “Lost in Beijing” and Li’s own “Blind Shaft”), coupled with the various eruptions of rottenness to come from the country since the build-up to the Olympics, leave the impression of a culture sick with corruption. It’s certainly a contrast from the comparatively gentle humanist vision provided by the Fifth Generation filmmakers, who examined endemic misogyny and old-fashioned norms but pulled far short of actively lambasting the basic realities of Chinese morality.
Bai tries to escape, of course — for a good part of the film, you’re convinced these hicks got more than they bargained for with this fiery waif. But we discover that the village, which is apparently suffering from a chronic woman deficit, is all but constructed around the verities of keeping captured women in and outsiders out; there’s only one faithfully guarded road to town, mountains form natural barriers, and the townspeople all conspire together. Bai is even met by two other young wives, both of whom confess to having been sold and implore her to give up her resistance. Soon enough, of course, she is raped by her “husband” (a witless jerk who’s the constant source of derision and impotence jokes around town), and his eager mother begins the vigil for a grandchild, which we know would more or less seal Bai’s fate. An organic aspect of “Blind Mountain” that particularly stings western eyes is how little Bai is shocked or appalled by her situation when the reality dawns on her — as bizarre as the scenario appears to us, for Chinese girls, it appears to be a viable threat, and an at least semi-common problem tolerated by the authorities. It’s obvious by virtue of its gravity and realism that Li’s movie is not hyperbole, but in fact (like “Blind Shaft”) nearly reportage.
The question remains throughout, as time passes and Bai’s enforced compromises grow more harrowing, will she surrender, like a female Winston Smith, to the totalitarianism of traditional peasant values and Chinese turpitude? If there’s a gripe to be had about “Blind Mountain,” it may be that it’s too beautiful in its spectacular landscapes, and with Lu, who’s quite Gong Li-ish and whose hair is too often salon-ready. But the thrust of the film is mighty and daring.