Often controversial Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye delivers one of his finest films with Blind Massage, a delicately observed and artfully directed ensemble drama, based on the novel of the same name by Bi Feiyu. Putting aside, at least for the time being, the intensely sexualized scenarios that marked some of his previous films (Summer Palace, Spring Fever, Love and Bruises, Mystery), Lou immerses us in a unique world - that of the blind - that's never been captured on film in quite this way. Sighted professional actors playing blind, including some Lou regulars, mesh seamlessly with actual non-sighted and partially-sighted amateurs to create a broad canvas encompassing several stories that are all engrossing and beautifully rendered.
Blind Massage begins with an offscreen narrator (who is heard intermittently throughout the film) telling the story of Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan) who lost his sight in a car accident that killed his mother. After he learns that his blindness is permanent and not a temporary condition as he'd been led to believe, he attempts suicide by cutting his own throat. After being saved, he is taught Braille and later joins the Sha Zongqi Massage Center in Nanjing, where blind and partially sighted masseurs and masseuses service customers and are provided with a home and livelihood. This is also where most of the action in the film takes place, in this bustling, crowded environment where joys, pain, and passions play themselves out in a way that is quite mesmerizing to behold.
After the opening credits - which, appropriately in a film about the blind, are read aloud rather than printed onscreen - we are introduced to the other workers and residents of the center. As the narrator tells us, the film initially takes place in the "golden age of blind massage." The center is run by two men with opposite personalities: the garrulous, self-styled ladies man Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and the more subdued and serious Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua). Sha's old classmate Wang (Guo Xiaodong), fleeing Shenzhen with his tail between his legs after losing his shirt on bad stocks, asks Fuming for a job, since Wang is also a trained masseur.
Wang brings along his fiancé, the partially sighted Kong (Zhang Lei), a sassy and flirtatious young woman who very quickly becomes Xiao Ma's object of erotic obsession. Sensing Xiao Ma's frustration over his unrequited desire, his friend Zhang Yiguang (Mu Huaipeng) takes him to Nanjing's red-light district, and to a very different kind of massage parlor, where Xiao Ma meets Mann (Huang Lu), a beautiful young prostitute; they soon forge a much closer relationship than the normal hooker-client one. However, Xiao Ma still can't let go of his feelings for Kong.
Meanwhile, Fuming falls head over heels for a new masseuse, Du Hong (Mei Ting); she fends off his advances, and generally finds the other male workers' obsession with her beauty to be a burden. Also, Wang has to defend his younger brother from some scary loan sharks; he backs them off by performing a startlingly violent and rather gory bit of self-sacrifice.
Lou Ye and screenwriter Ma Yingli weave all these stories together with sensitivity, compassion, and an elegant artistry that is often stunning. In a presumably similar way to Bi Feiyu's source material, these blind characters are not held up as objects of pity nor are their stories presented as vehicles for cheaply inspirational uplift. Instead, they appear to us as full human beings, with the same joys, laughter, pains, suffering, and sexual desires as so-called "normal" people. They're not over-romanticized, either; some of them are seen committing some rather negative and unsavory acts. At the same time, the dignity with which they practice their craft and carry themselves is quite remarkable; one of the films' best scenes has the blind workers leading sighted visitors safely out of the building during a blackout.
Blind Massage also finds a wonderful way to approximate for sighted viewers the experience of blindness; vertiginous close-ups, blurry and impressionistic visual textures, and odd angles form a great deal of the visual schema of the film. This is a great testament to the talents of cinematographer Zeng Jian, who won a Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution at this year's Berlin Film Festival for his work. Also contributing greatly to the evocative mood is Icelandic composer Johann Johannson - who also scored Lou Ye's previous film Mystery - who provides a spare, minimalist score that beautifully undergirds the rich landscape of human emotions that Ye and his collaborators have so vividly created.
Blind Massage screens on July 2, 2:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's website or NYAFF's website.
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