Images from Blind Shaft:

In a later scene in the film, Yuan meets the prostitute, Xiao Hong. Like Yuan, Xiao Hong is a migrant worker sending money home to her family. In Blind Shaft, Li shows complex migrant workers struggling during globalization. Blind Mountain, on the other hand, does not show sympathy towards the Huang family.

Song (left) and Tang (right) descend into the mineshaft with their first victim, whose last name is Yuan. ...

...This sets up Song’s later moral quandary, when he fears that this victim is the father of the child they choose as their next victim.

Song sends funds home to his son. In this scene Tang is also seen lining up at the bank. However Li does not show whether Tang also sends money home.

As the more sympathetic con artist, Song cares for his family and shows concern for the young Yuan.

Song regrets spending money on a prostitute, lamenting that he should have given it to his son.

What separates Song from Tang is his concern for Yuan’s family line.

An unwilling Yuan is forced to visit a prostitute. Tang and Song intend the visit as both a gift and a way to assuage their guilt—making Yuan “become a man” before they kill him. ...

... Instead, Yuan interprets the forced encounter as an assault on his moral integrity, crying that he has “become a bad man.”

The studious Yuan is always seen with a book in hand. As the moral center of the film ...

... Yuan's intentions for money are also education-related. He hopes to send his sister and then himself back to school.

As noted by Chow, the lyrics to the song “Socialism is good” have changed. Tang only knows the older version, which is “tu,” or “old-fashioned.” ...

... However, both he and Song adapt quickly to the new version.



Rey Chow’s Sentimental Fabulations, with its complex discussion of the sentimental (a “predominant affective mode”),[18] [open endnotes in new window] touches on the concept of family in these films. Chow’s project is a theoretical look at the concept of the sentimental and its relation to global visibility. She uses Chinese film and China’s specific cultural and historical positioning as departure points to discuss the sentimental in more depth. Chow first elaborates on the different meanings suggested by the concept sentimental, and later defines her own usage of the term. She begins with Friedrich Schiller’s definition of the sentimental as “a modern creative attitude marked by a particular self-consciousness of loss,” which she notes is important also for its relation to time:

“As an affective state triggered by a sense of loss, sentimentalism was, for Schiller, the symptom of the apprehension of an irreversible temporal differentiation or the passing of time.”[19]

Chow then turns to Anglo-American humanities, and notes that there

“the sentimental… clearly occupies a place that has much to do with the enduringly fraught ethics of human society as mediated by art and fiction [Chow’s emphasis].”[20]

In other words, in this second sense sentimentalism reveals a great deal about human social interaction, themes of power, control, justice and consciousness, and their relation to the media in which they are represented. Chow ultimately considers the sentimental more useful as a “discursive constellation” than as simple “affective excess.”[21] As such, she expands on the concept of the sentimental with the idea of “warm sentimentalism.”

Turning to the Chinese context, Chow elaborates the term wenqingzhuyi or warm sentimentalism—a term that brings to mind the idea of  honghuo’s “social heat.” The concept is unique in that it is characterized by the “mild, tender, tolerant, obliging, [and] forbearing.”[22] Chow further defines sentiment in this context as

“an inclination or a disposition toward making compromises and toward making-do and even—and especially—that which is oppressive and unbearable.”[23]

She suggests that whereas Freud saw the sentiment as the overflow of the suppressed, she would counter that the sentimental is characterized by what is kept and preserved, by what “holds things together,” and is rather a “mood of endurance.”[24]

Chow further links warm sentimentalism to the home/ family/ interior. She notes,

“The modes of human relationships affectively rooted in [the] imagined inside—an inside whose depths of feeling tend to become intensified with the perceived aggressive challenges posed by modernity—are what I would argue as sentimental.”[25]

In other words, the family/ home is an important location for the sentimental because of the perceived tension between the inside and the outside. Chow continues,

“…the sentimental is ultimately about the delineation and elaboration of a comfortable/homely interiority, replete with the implications of exclusion that such delineation and elaboration by necessity entail.”[26]

It is notable that Chow’s list of situations wherein the sentimental occurs include themes central to migrants—labor and family. Her situations include:

  • filiality;
  • domesticity;
  • preparation, consumption, sharing and/or offering of food;
  • poverty;
  • childhood and old age;
  • sight or knowledge of physical labor;
  • togetherness and separation (such as caused by migration);
  • preference for familial/social harmony and reconciliation;
  • passing of time;
  • manifestations of nature; and
  • the non-negotiable imperative to reproduce biologically.[27]

For migrants the tension between the imagined inside/outside is central. These characters are outsiders spatially (as strangers from another place), metaphorically (as perceived obstacles to China’s modernization), and linguistically—as wailairenkou (population coming from outside, incoming population) and waidiren (people from outside). A desire for a “homely interiority”—literally as in a home and figuratively as in a feeling of acceptance in China’s changing order—is thus desirable, yet inaccessible to migrants due to the problematic nature of globalization. It is in this tension, a tension that often occurs in scenes about family/home, that we see the “drama of the sentimental”—a drama that reveals the ambiguity of “family” during Chinese modernization.

Blind Shaft (2003)

In Blind Shaft, this dramatic tension is centered on the concept of “family.” First, Song and Tang use kinship as a commodity, killing “family members” and selling the loss of their “relative” for money. Chow notes,

“The key to the entire scam is, in other words, the fabrication of a particular unit of social organization—namely, the kinship family—that appeals to others as something natural and authentic….”[28]

It is through the creation of family relations that the two men create legitimacy that can be cashed in on in a market economy, a perverted application of capitalism. As one of the mine owners in the film notes, there is “no shortage” of human beings in China.

The bodies of “family” (as in fellow Chinese) become commodities in modernizing China. [29] In other words, somehow during the process of globalization, the family is monetized. Additionally, the murder of family can be seen as a metaphor for the conflicted nature of globalization—Li’s narrative suggests that China’s new economic system relies on the “murder” of its own people. In an economy dependent on the labor of its people, the bodies of the citizens become a kind of capital. In overusing them, abusing them, or tossing them in the system without adequate preparation or protection, the country sacrifices its family to the markets.

The film also invokes family through scenes of filiality, the idealization of which is, according to Chow, possibly the central notion of Chinese sentimentalism.[30] The younger murderer in Blind Shaft—Song Jinming—becomes guilt-ridden after witnessing the obedient filial piety of his next potential victim, Yuan Fengming. Suddenly family becomes an agent of change and potential redemption. Sixteen-year-old Fengming expresses nothing but respect for his elders and sees in Song a kind of paternal figure. He worships and obeys the elder migrant, obediently retiring to bed when Song orders him to sleep. When Fengming disappears in a market—causing his two would-be killers to panic—he suddenly reappears with a chicken that he has purchased for his elders out of respect and devotion. Song slaps the boy, but his reaction is ambivalent: is Song afraid of losing his target/source of income, or is he afraid for the safety of the boy, whose strong sense of filial piety is endearing? Fengming appears to remind Song of his own son, who—like Yuan—also left home to work, and of his responsibilities as a father. Neither Tang nor Yuan have returned home in years, both lacking a sense of responsibility as the heads of their households.

Song also becomes concerned that a man he killed (also surnamed Yuan) might potentially be the missing father of Yuan Fengming.[31] Conflicted, Song laments the prospect of ending the Yuan family line and of offending their ancestors. However, Li Yang is purposely ambiguous and does not reveal if Song would have chosen the moral path in the end: Tang strikes Song a mortal blow before the audience can see whether Song would have saved the boy. Li’s choice to leave Song’s paternal existential crisis unresolved suggests ambiguity about Song’s ability to overcome the compelling desire for money and perhaps an uncertainty about China’s moral future as well.

The search for family is another situation in which the sentimental occurs—the search itself a kind of existential migration. Yuan, as the sole moral light in the film, has left his home in search of his father. He is also migrating to earn the funds necessary for his education and moral enrichment. His migration differs from that of Song and Tang, whose migration is primarily motivated by money. Yuan, who is constantly reading and studying in the hopes of self-improvement and who is, moreover, irrepressibly filial, is the film's most ethical character. The prostitute he sleeps with also demonstrates her filiality by sending money home to her family.

However, Yuan’s character is complicated by his participation in the scam, which is contingent on the target’s willingness to misrepresent himself as a relative. When Tang first meets Yuan, the boy very quickly agrees to the ruse, thus demonstrating his potential for duplicity. Additionally, after very weak protesting at the end of the film, Yuan accepts money from the mine for the deaths of Song and Tang. As such, he is potentially learning the value of commoditizing relatives, and his future may or may not coincide with that of the two con men. In the final shot of the film, Yuan watches smoke rise from the cremation facility burning the corpses of the two con men. Yuan’s expression—at times befuddled, at times contemplative—does not clearly reveal what lessons he has learned from his experience.

The pursuit of education, not listed in Chow’s sentimental situations, might also be considered a location of the sentimental in Blind Shaft. Indeed, the importance of education is vital in the Chinese family context. In the film the lack of education—moral or otherwise—is a core theme and measure of morality in modernizing China. Director Li Yang notes,

“When I asked coal miners about what kept them going regardless of the dangers of working in the mines, the response I got over and over was that they needed to send their kids to school.”[32]

In his personal research, Li discovered the importance of education in the parent-child relationship and in preserving the migrant family. However, Tang lacks education, Song laments his son’s abandonment of school, and Yuan is forced to work because he cannot pay for school.

Chow, in a very astute reading, considers why the semi-illiterate character Tang appears to be the film's most evil character. She wonders—is there a correlation between Tang’s lack of education and his “evilness”? Tang is hardened, nasty and malevolent. He is the first to approach the boy Yuan Fengming—wolf-like—as a potential victim. When Song criticizes Tang for choosing an adolescent victim, Tang retorts,

“I don’t care if he is a child or an adult. As long as I can make money, it’s fine. If you had money, then your child wouldn’t have to leave and go to work. You feel sorry for [Yuan], but who will feel sorry for you?”

Tang also appears to be dismissive of the education of others. When Yuan Fengming happens upon a begging child holding a sign asking for school tuition, he gives the boy some of his own hard-earned money. Upon witnessing Yuan Fengming give the child money, Tang gives the little boy a hard look and dismissively glances at what he knows must be written on the sign he ostensibly cannot read. “It must be fake,” he grumbles. Tang’s “evilness” is starkly contrasted to the purity of Yuan, who places a great deal of importance on education.

Yet Li Yang is also sympathetic to Tang’s lack of education, which he blames on the changes affecting society. He emphasizes the conflicted nature of Tang’s education by demonstrating that Tang’s upbringing did not prepare him for the transition to a market economy. In one of the few humorous scenes in Blind Shaft, two KTV (“karaoke TV,” a private karaoke room equipped with a television and couches) hostess girls/ prostitutes invert Tang’s rendition of the song, “Socialism Is Good.” They laugh that his version is tu (old-fashioned, uncouth, rural). One cannot help but pity the older Tang as the young girls mock him for his lack of style and knowledge. Additionally, in Li Yang’s interview with Michael Berry, the director claims that the song was included in part to demonstrate that

“the two main characters…received a socialist education. They were brought up singing songs like, ‘Socialism Is Good’; however, they have been deserted by China’s new social situation.”[33]

Li’s criticism here is aimed not at individuals, but at the government that did not prepare society for this change. Tang and Song’s perversion of the market system does not just reveal their faults as individuals, but a much larger social problem.

It is notable that “family” is the site of both salvation and transgression in post-socialist China. For Tang and Song, their upbringing has not prepared them for the new economic system and has resulted in the depraved selling of kin/ breakdown of the family/ disregard of education. The filial, education-hungry Yuan represents the uncertain future of China. At play here is the idea of traditional/ “Confucian” values emerging in the market era. For example, is Li Yang arguing there is salvation in tradition? The film does not try to provide an answer to this question. Rather, it aims to show a country in economic and moral flux.

At the end of the film we are doubtful of Yuan’s future prospects, as he has accepted tainted money—tainted both by his false claim as a nephew, and by the perverted capitalist greed that caused the deaths. However, because of this character’s youth and decency, Li Yang leaves the ending open to hopeful interpretation.

The most “evil” character in the film, Tang, appears to be illiterate and also harbors distrust for education. Here he dismisses the child’s plea for high school funds as fake. A malevolent Tang prepares to kill Yuan.
Yuan is passive during the final scenes of negotiation for the lives of his “family members” Tang and Song. A con man’s body awaits cremation.
The camera tilts up from Yuan’s face to the chimney the ashes of Tang and Song. Li leaves the story open-ended for us. Will Yuan be morally tainted by this experience?

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