Sunday, June 29, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Blind Massage

Real massage therapists have anatomical and physiological training to rival doctors, but it remains a widely misunderstood profession. Perhaps in hopes of separating the therapeutic and sensual connotations, it has been one of the few avenues of employment traditionally open to the blind in China. The so-called “doctors” of such a Nanjing clinic are highly skilled, but also deeply human. Their lives will connect and conflict in Lou Ye’s ensemble drama Blind Massage (clip here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

The staff is blind, but the patients are entirely sighted, at least as far as we know. That itself is a role reversal. The Sha Zongqi Massage Centre is run by the gregarious Sha Fuming and his reserved partner, Zhang Zongqi, who always try to place new therapists in need of work. Their latest two recruits come with issues. Sullen Xiao Ma gradually lost his sight during his early teen years and has yet to come to terms with his blindness. In contrast, Dr. Wang had once amassed a sizable nest egg, but he lost it all during the financial crisis, forcing him to ask his old friend Sha for a job.

The relationships between staff members will become complicated, like a Chinese massage version of ER. Xiao Ma will be recklessly attracted to Dr. Wang’s partial sighted fiancée Kong, before developing a full-on obsession for local (fully sighted) prostitute Xiao Man. Despite Xiao Ma’s frequent brothel patronage, his beautiful colleague Du Hong nurses an attraction to him, while rebuffing the advances of the desperately lonely Sha.

About a dozen other characters factor into the mix somehow. Frankly, Blind Massage is a bit unwieldy with subplots, but it is hard to say where to cut, because they each work on their own terms. The film was adapted by Lou’s documentary filmmaker wife Ma Yingli from Bei Feiyu’s novel that has already been produced as a multi-part television drama—and it is easy to imagine these characters working in a telenovela format.

However, Lou’s approach is distinctly cinematic, approaching the experimental. His past films have directly raised issues of perception (particularly last year’s NYAFF selection, Mystery), but he takes it in a different direction during Blind Massage, visibly reducing the light and softening the focus during scenes driven by blind characters and reverting to standard levels for sequences involving sighted characters or expository housekeeping. He also employs a narrator to read the unseen credits and provide background information on characters, evoking the experience of enhanced visual descriptions.

Blind Massage captures the arbitrary unfairness of life in vivid terms, but that also offers an opportunity for unlikely cast-members to shine. As a case in point, Guo Xiaodong’s Dr. Wang seems rather unassuming, until blowing the doors off the joint in a confrontation with loan sharks dogging his irresponsible sighted younger brother. It is a scene and a performance worthy of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Mei Ting also pulls the emotional rug out from under us, as the ostensibly standoffish, Du Hong. She resents the fuss made by her colleagues (especially Sha) over the beauty they can never see, yet experiences some of the film’s greatest heartsickness.

On its face, Blind Massage is totally apolitical, but You is still pushing boundaries with its uncomfortable intimacy and matter-of-fact description of contemporary Chinese life for any sort of underdog population. It seems downright tame by our standards, but considering the Puritanism of Communist censors, many scenes represent no small risk to You’s standing. Yet, they are never gratuitous, well serving the characters’ emotional development at crucial junctures. Despite a bit of narrative messiness, it is an engrossing film that pulls viewers into the lives on screen in a vivid, ambitiously experiential way. Recommended for mature audiences, Blind Massage screens tomorrow (6/30) and Wednesday (7/2) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.