Controversial Chinese director Li Yang's second feature is a near-perfect counterpart to his debut, BLIND SHAFT, an intense thriller set in the very real world of unregulated mines: A fictionalized expose of wife selling, another illegal scheme in which naive, impoverished human beings are commodities to be bought and sold.
China, the early 1990s. Recent college graduate Bai Xuemei (Huang Li) arrives in a small northern city with Hu, a newfound friend who introduces her to Wu, the manager of a Chinese medicine company. Hu tells Xumei she can make a lot of money as a traveling salesperson for Manager Wu's business: After a few trips to the countryside to collect medicinal herbs, Xumei will probably earn enough to get her parents out of debt and begin saving for her younger brother's college tuition. After a long drive out into the mountains, Manager Wu and Hu leave Xumei in the center of a small, remote village while they head out into the fields to search for herbs. Xumei awakes hours later in a small room on a family farm – she's been drugged, Wu and Hu are nowhere to be seen and her wallet and ID are gone. When she tries to leave, Xumei's hosts break the news: Posing as her family, Wu and Hu sold her to their son, Huang Decheng (He Yunle), for 7000 Yuan, and now she must marry him. "All women end up married," her sympathetic prospective mother-in-law (Zhang Yuli) tells her. "We'll treat you like family." When Xumei tries to run, they lock her up in her small bedroom. She spends her wedding day, there, bound and gagged. When Xumei later resists her new husband's drunken advances, Degui rapes her, with help from his father (Jia Yun). Xumei does manage to escape and makes it as far as the village chief, who tells her that since her "family" accepted Degui's "dowry," she's technically his. He returns Xumei to Degui, who then chains her to her bed. Xumei slowly realizes that here wife selling isn't treated as the crime the Chinese government says it is, and when she meets the other young wives of the village, Xumei realizes she's hardly the first woman to have been kidnapped and sold into virtual slavery.
Set in the years immediately following China's Tiananmen Square massacre, when easing economic restrictions ushered in a brave new market economy, Li's bold, angry film depicts a merciless society completely defined by commerce. Promised freedoms are restricted by poverty: Poor peasants are taxed for animals they no longer own (Degui's family is forced to pay a pig tax, pork tax and income tax on a hog sold months before). Medical attention is offered only after the money is handed over, and doctors prescribe overpriced medication for a cut of the profits. Babies who won't grow up to be wage-earning men are drowned in rivers and children who can't afford to go to school don't; and motorists only offer rides to hitchhikers with cash in hand. And of course, women desperate enough to trust strangers are taken far from their families and sold like cattle into lives of slavery. Twenty years ago, Li's film might have served as a warning; today, it rues a dehumanizing economic system run rampant that leaves one sad slave wife to muse, "It's easy to die. It's living that's hard." (In Mandarin, with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox