Blind Shaft — Inside China’s Coal Mines


I finally saw this great movie and want to recommend it to everyone. Dark, grimy, grim and gritty, Blind Shaft is a microcosm of the lives led by China’s migrant workers: the poverty, the living conditions, the treachery, the corruption, the food, the prostitutes, the dangerous work… I won’t go into the plot, except to say that I was surprised by its relatively upbeat ending, a brilliant blast of irony. It’s not a sentimental ending, but it definitely leaves you feeling good. Every other scene, however, is harrowing and anything but feel-good.

The Discussion: 52 Comments

I TOLD y’all! Did I not?

June 24, 2005 @ 3:15 pm | Comment

Yes, you did. I first read about it in 2003 over at Asian Labour News. It was worth the wait.

June 24, 2005 @ 3:21 pm | Comment

Just ordered it on ebay.

cheaper than borders, more expensive than China.

June 24, 2005 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

Needless to say, it’s banned in China….

June 24, 2005 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

Huh! Banned! I watched it a couple of weeks ago. I managed to get one of those oh-so-precious good quality pirate copies. Great film.

June 24, 2005 @ 8:09 pm | Comment

the ending left you feeling *good* ???

June 24, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

I just think it’s an amazingly spot-on critique of a certain aspect of modern China (for example, every account I read of the Shalan school drownings brings this film to mind). I’m so impressed with the filmmaker.

June 24, 2005 @ 9:45 pm | Comment

it’s a real China that is under going a fundamental societal change.
Scenes in the film are everywhere in China but not public films. think it better shown publicly instead of sneak shows.
anyway, end of the film is quite surprising. can be called kind of compromise with the reality.

June 24, 2005 @ 9:55 pm | Comment

other lisa, I’m with you on your assessment. a lot of things in daily life bring this film to my mind as well. also, watching myself watch it is, well, a bit enlightening.

I just don’t see where anyone could feel good about the ending and am very curious to understand…

June 24, 2005 @ 10:02 pm | Comment

Well, Echo, I can actually see both your POV and Richard’s on the ending. I’d comment more but don’t want to give it away!

June 24, 2005 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

One of the things that was really striking about the film was how it suggests that civic bonds are dangerously frayed, if not completely broken (that’s why I kept thinking about it in terms of the Shalan school tragedy – I’ve posted 4 articles about it now). You can count on yourself and to a lesser extent your family, and that’s about it, at least in the world of criminals, both the low end grifters and the corrupt big bosses.

June 24, 2005 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

Echo, what was revealing about ‘watching yourself watch it?”

June 24, 2005 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

where and when I get that judgemental flash. what actions/ideas I can stomache, which ones I have a harder time with.

I think one of the things I’ve been coming to grips with is the following idea : good people do bad things, and the reverse is also true. no problem. however the bad things that sometimes happen in china push that idea to an extreme for me, and I find it much more difficult to ‘overlook’ or rationalize with certain things. some days it makes sense to me, some days it doesn’t.

has anyone watched the movie ‘dogville’ ?

would that there were a place where blind shaft spoilers could discuss, because I’m wondering if I might have gotten a different read/interpretation on the ending than some.

June 25, 2005 @ 12:39 am | Comment

well, Buddhists would say there are no good or bad people, there are good and bad actions…that’s right, isn’t it?

June 25, 2005 @ 1:28 am | Comment

what is right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

June 25, 2005 @ 3:30 am | Comment

richard can you put a big banner saying SPOILERS AHEAD so we can discuss the ending unhindered by being polite to those who’ve not yet seen the film?
echo, what exactly is the dogville connection (I’ve seen both films)?

June 25, 2005 @ 3:40 am | Comment

Here’s what I wrote in the past about Dogville.

Consider this comment a warning: if you read past here and haven’t seen Blind Shaft yet, it could spoil the movie for you.

Now we can discuss the ending.

June 25, 2005 @ 8:28 am | Comment

Echo, at the end, there is an ironic twist, truly poetic justice. The one we expect to die lives, and the bad guy dies. Not only does the good guy live, but he’s handed a fat stack of 100-yuan notes, even though he doesn’t want them. It’s not a feel-good ending per se, but we walk away feeling less miserable than we expected to, by a long shot.

This was interesting, from the UK Guardian:

Li explains that nearly all his cast were non-professionals, plucked from the local economies. The miners didn’t mind being involved in the film, he insists, so long as it didn’t interrupt their work. “Most of them seemed amused by having us around. They had a good sense of humour, and a sort of magnanimous view of the world in general. There is a word we have in China called ‘renming’. It means being sanguine. Accepting one’s fate.”

June 25, 2005 @ 8:42 am | Comment

I’ve seen the film, but I’ve forgotten the ending. ๐Ÿ™‚

June 25, 2005 @ 8:43 am | Comment

Quick question for Beijingers…
Is this DVD available in our local DVD shops? I know it’s prob banned, but that doesn’t stop other movies…
Thanks in advance…

June 25, 2005 @ 9:09 am | Comment

I bought Blind Shaft here in Urumqi – it’s all over the place. In fact, if I went down to the market tomorrow and asked, I’d bet they’d have it. They’d certainly know it, it got around.

I bought it, but I didn’t watch it. Big regret of mine. I had a long DVD watch list – but it’s now on a slow boat to the US. I’m moving out of Urumqi this monday… hopefully, it’ll make it home!

That said, on banning: it’s a sieve with big holes, or pores, or whatever you call ’em. Blind Shaft got here, CDs with “banned tracks”, even the BBC 50 years DVD that included a brief but revealing 2 minutes of T-Square. A friend lived in Wuhan, where a local DVD seller had it in stock. He talked to the merchant about the scene; he said he was shocked that something like that might, repeat, might have been hidden from him. He was a little overwhelmed. He also believed Apollo 13 was fictional, as did a majority of my friends friends. So bear that in mind.

The open thread mentioned Coco Lee’s new banned songs… how much you wanna bet I can buy a CD including those songs tomorrow?

Long live information piracy, may it be victorious against the Great Firewall and its Nanny! Now if people would actually both watch AND think about the stuff that is accessible to them here.

June 25, 2005 @ 11:11 am | Comment

Banned in China has nothing to do with whether it’s available in China. Two different things, no?

June 25, 2005 @ 11:15 am | Comment

Exactly, Richard, that’s where I’m optimistic; the policy doesn’t match the reality. And that’s a good thing.

Now if only more of my students could be critical readers… Kafka is available in the Xinhua bookstore, but how many people I know would see any irony in it, let alone talk about it?

June 25, 2005 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

yes, richard, he wins, in a way. but he perpetuates the cycle. he goes on to start with others what others tried to do to him. that, to me, is not feel good. he’s the good guy one minute, “bad guy” the next. which is part of the reason I love the movie, part of the reason I had a hard time stomaching it.

June 25, 2005 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

Dave, I hate to say it, but I cannot see today’s students in the PRC appreciating Kafka in any way whatever. To them, it would simply be a rehash of everyday life!! Ever deal with the Chinese bureaucracy?

June 25, 2005 @ 1:19 pm | Comment


June 25, 2005 @ 1:58 pm | Comment

yeah and that’s what got me when people said Chinese couldn’t innovate or think out the box. sure they might write boring essays at university but they could use plenty of tricks to make sure they passed the exam (only bribing as a last resort). and how much ingenuity is required in china to buy a train ticket or, as you say, deal with the beaurocracy … compared to the UK for instance.

June 25, 2005 @ 3:09 pm | Comment


Echo, I didn’t get the sense that the young student would do the same thing that the two conmen did. He tried to turn down the money at first. It’s not clear whether the lesser of the two baddies would have killed the boy – he hesitated long enough to suggest that he might not have – because the boy’s situation was close enough to his own and to his son’s where he was able to have some empathy for the kid that crossed those “I only care about me and mine” boundaries. So I think the boy isn’t corrupted by all of this all that much – but just because he escapes with his life and a little money in no way redeems the larger system. That’s why I see both yours and Richard’s interpretations of the ending. It’s not as bleak as it could be because this one kid is saved, but it’s certainly no less an indictment of the system for that.

June 25, 2005 @ 9:47 pm | Comment


other lisa : I’m going to have to watch the movie again to remember exactly why I got the impression that he was perpetuating the cycle. I don’t think it was the taking of the money that prompted that conclusion from me, but I watched it a long time ago, so it’s a bit fuzzy…iirc the other men also ‘protested’ at first, as a tactic to get more money. but again, I’ll have to watch it again if I’m to really comment usefully.

one of those watching myself moments, btw, was in the darkness, when we weren’t sure who would come out. for an instant I thought it would be the young boy and the lesser-of-two-evils guy. expectation of change in an individual, naive belief that he’d rather kill his best friend than let the boy die.

June 25, 2005 @ 11:51 pm | Comment


Well, lesser of two evils guy DID end up killing his friend (after said “friend” attacked him first because apparently he didn’t think the other guy would kill the kid), but whether that was just reflexive protecting himself or that he wanted to save the kid was hard to say… Eviler guy thought he could knock them BOTH off and then collect double the money.

June 26, 2005 @ 12:23 am | Comment

Having seen the movie some 48 hours ago. I have to agree with Lisa here. When Echo said the youg man was perpetuating the cycle, I thought she meant in the sense that he was profiting from the deception. There was no indication I could tell that he had been corrupted and would start playing the killers’ sinister game.

June 26, 2005 @ 2:04 am | Comment

I agree, and I also think that the kid represents what little hope there is to be found in the system.

June 26, 2005 @ 2:16 am | Comment

And the kid remained good to the very end, even refusing to take the money until they forced him to.

June 26, 2005 @ 2:20 am | Comment

And they forced him to because they are so corrupt that they’re certain he’s just holding out for more renmin bi. He’s going to take that money, go home to his family, help get his sister an education…the filmmaker seems to feel that since there is no real sense of civic obligation, the only hope for China is individual virtue (that old notion of Confucian self-cultivation), which the kid somehow maintains in spite of everything.

June 26, 2005 @ 3:08 am | Comment

actually, looking at my last statement, I may be reading waaay too much into it (but hey, it’s nearly 2 AM here). In a lot of ways, the film is a modern interpretation of good, old fashioned noir, done in a semi-documentary style.

June 26, 2005 @ 3:10 am | Comment

I don’t really think that the kid represents what’s good in the system as much as one aspect of the two men does: they didn’t feel much compunction about killing the first guy we see, but they do feel bad about killing the kid.
is the because, after all, these guys feel touched by his innocence/youth and don’t want to end his life?
Not quite.
they hesistate killing him because of the bond they’ve developed with him … some friendship … they like him …

now the men reasonably conscientiously send their ill-gotten gains home.
so can we say that the boy is standing on the edge of becoming a friend to the men — in the slightly chinese sense of someone who must now be looked out for.

which goes back to what people have said about a feature often present in china,
of not giving a toss about other people unless you have a strong connection / “friendship” / relationship with them?

June 26, 2005 @ 3:28 am | Comment

incidentally, I agree that the actor playing the kid, Wang Baoqiang, does a great job.
so never let yourself see an andy lau film called “A world without thieves” (Tian xia wu zei) because the same kid plays a hollywoodised version of the naive innocent, except it is puke inducing sacchirine stuff & v v tedious.

June 26, 2005 @ 3:34 am | Comment

Yeah, but only the Lesser of Two Evils Guy feels that connection. The other guy is like, hey, let’s kill the kid and get one with it. The Lesser of Two Evils Guy feels a connection to the kid because he relates the kid to his own situation – his frustrated attempts to get an education, his caring for his son – he sees the kid as both himself and a surrogate child.

June 26, 2005 @ 3:58 am | Comment

I meant, “get on with it.” Nearly 3 AM here. Why am I still up?

June 26, 2005 @ 3:59 am | Comment

hmm, yes because ” let’s kill the kid and get one with it” does sound as if he’s planning to see his expensive shrink in NY or LA later!!

June 26, 2005 @ 4:07 am | Comment

If you’ve ever spent time on China’s coal fields – especially around illegal mines – then this movie will strike you as very authentic. The opening scene captures the essence of life for many workers, and when I saw the movie for the first time I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise (my copy was kindly sent to me by JG). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my copy also came with a soft porn cover so at odds with the movie that it beggers belief. I’m glad there’s an English version, because the Chinese version is difficult to comprehend sometimes (the slang, the accents, mumbling etc., are mind boggling in places). I’d be intersted to see how they translate various bits and pieces. A friend of mine (who has spent a great deal of time with miners and speaks Chinese very, very well) watched it with his tutor, only to be told it wasn’t real Chinese and he shouldn’t watch such things. Even his tutor had a tough time understanding some of it (which made me feel a bit better).

I endorse everything said on this thread: Blind Shaft is a great movie about a group of Chinese people who aren’t very visible except in often sensational newspaper reports on terrible accidents.

Interestingly, it seems that a recent teledrama on Chinese TV has also sought to portray migrant workers in a more complex way. I know Blind Shaft is banned (though available), but Survival – Migrant Workers is on regular TV and shows (hopefully) that perceptions about migrants workers are beginning change. You can see a brief post with links to some video footage of Survival – Migrant Workers here.

June 26, 2005 @ 9:33 pm | Comment

my DVD copy of Blind Shaft actually lists the dialect (don’t have time to fetch the box) – it’s not even listed as Mandarin.

June 27, 2005 @ 10:30 am | Comment

Hi Lisa. Thanks for that.

I guess it’s technically a dialect (if your box says so), but it’s basically Mandarin. I just played a bit again and it’s not so much that it’s a dialect that makes it hard to comprehend, it’s the accents and slang. Non-Mandarin words are certainly used, and that doesn’t help either.

My friend’s tutor’s point was essentially that migrant workers can’t speak Chinese properly (a fairly common assumption amongst the educated).

I’d be interested in knowing what your box lists the dialect as.

June 27, 2005 @ 7:28 pm | Comment

Stephen, the box says its “Henanese.” My sense was that it’s a dialect in the Mandarin family – I could understand bits of it (and I imagine my Chinese isn’t as good as yours). there was a lot of dropping of the final “ang” and stuff like that, as I recall.

June 28, 2005 @ 12:17 am | Comment

Hey, thanks Lisa. Henanhua would make sense. Don’t worry about understanding bits of it – this is really the sort of film that only native speakers (or those with native speaking ability) fully get. I’ve sat through it with native speakers and they pick up so much more than I do; especially contextual stuff. I must get hold of a subtitled copy to see how they’ve translated some of it (whoever did the translation would have had their work cut out for them).

Thanks again.

June 28, 2005 @ 1:59 am | Comment

Does anyone know what this translates into in Chinese?

June 28, 2005 @ 7:40 am | Comment

I think it’s mang2 jing3 – literally “blind well.”

June 28, 2005 @ 11:04 am | Comment

Thanks Other Lisa.

By the way..who is the other Lisa?

June 28, 2005 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

Hahah! Well, that has a few explanations. One of my best friends in LA (who now lives in Hawaii) is named Lisa. Another mutual friend of our had this mad crush on her for years, so I sort of felt like the “other lisa.” But mainly when I started posting on blogs, “Lisa” was all over the place (can’t remember which blog this was), so I figured…

June 28, 2005 @ 10:51 pm | Comment

Gordon: Other Lisa is right; โ€“ร“ห†รค – mang jing, lit. blind shaft.

June 29, 2005 @ 10:13 pm | Comment

Hey, what happened to the Chinese? That’s definitely not what I typed in….

June 29, 2005 @ 10:17 pm | Comment

Sorry Stephen, I don’t write Chinese so I’m not sure what happened…

June 30, 2005 @ 7:53 am | Comment

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