Sunday, January 24, 2010

Global Lens ’10: The Shaft

As a consequence of its One-Child policy, marriageable women are now scarce in China, and the situation is only projected to get worse. This will obviously result in long-term sociological shocks, but the effects are already being felt to some extent. Such realities indirectly influence one family struggling to find its way in a remote mining village in Zhang Chi’s The Shaft (trailer here), which screens this week at MoMA as part of their annual Global Lens collaboration with the Global Film Initiative.

Old Baogen very definitely lives in a company town. Your choices for employment are basically mining and not much else. Baogen has worked in the mines for years while raising his son and daughter as a single parent. His daughter Jingshui now works in the mining company’s front office and has been carrying on a clandestine relationship with Daming, a rather taciturn miner. His son Jingsheng does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but having made a complete hash of high school, stopping just short of formally dropping out, he has no real alternatives.

Looking distinctly out of place in this drab environment, the beautiful Jingshui is far out of Daming’s league, but rumors of an affair with her supervisor have disturbed him, fraying their relationship. Still, as a woman, she has certain options for leaving town—namely marriage—not open to her slacker brother.

Though it is organized as a triptych, Shaft forms a complete and sequential storyline without any doubling back or other tiresome narrative games so popular in festival films lately. This is the story of Baogen’s family, incomplete as they might be. After all, someone is obviously missing: their mother, a trafficked bride who was reclaimed by her family after the birth of Jingsheng.

In many ways, Shaft is the flip side to Li Yang’s Blind Mountain, humanizing those who have resorted to buying wives through unsavory means. It is a decision that still clearly tortures old Baogen, both for what his wife endured and that his children grew up without a mother as a result.

Though Shaft never offers any direct criticism of the Chinese government per se, its unflattering depiction of contemporary society could hardly be considered propaganda either. Indeed, Zhang’s sets a grim, naturalistic tone throughout the film. Yet for all the tribulations endured by Baogen’s family, it is not a hopelessly bleak film. In fact, it actually ends on a relatively optimistic note (another rarity among serious festival films). Shaft is also buoyed by a strong principle cast, particularly the haunting Luoqian Zheng as Jingshui. Pulling off the trickiest role, Deyuan Luo keeps old Baogen sympathetic despite his past, giving the film a real humanist heart.

Global Lens tends to select serious art films that can sometimes be a bit of a tough haul to get through. Though the quiet Shaft is certainly not a megaplex movie, it is never obscure or dryly intellectual. At its core, it is a family drama, and a rather good one at that. Easily one of the best of this year’s Global Lens, Shaft screens at MoMA through Wednesday (1/27).