Review of “Blind Massage” (China/France, 2014)

Review of Blind Massage (推拿;China/France, 2014), A Dream Factory (China) & Les Films du Lendemain (France) Release; presented by Shaanxi Culture Industry (China).

Directed by: LOU Ye
Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Kristina Larsen;
Executive Producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen;
Script:  Ma Yingli, based on a novel by BI Feiyu;
Cinematographer: Zeng Jian;
Editor: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin;
Music:  Jóhann Jóhannsson;
Art Direction: Du Ailin;
Sound: Fu Kang;
Cast: Guo Xiaodong (Wang), Eric Qin (Sha Fuming), Zhang Lei (Kong), Jiang Dan (Jin Yan), Huang Junjun (Xu Taihe), Mei Ting (Du Hong), Huang Xuan (Xiao Ma), Huang Lu (Xiao Man), Mu Huaipeng (Zhang Yiguang), Wang Zhihua (Zhang Zongqi), Han Zhiyou (Gao Wei).
Running time: 115 min / Color / 1.85:1 / 2014.

Easily the most powerful and innovative Asian film — along with Fruit CHAN’s The Midnight After — among an iffy line-up of premieres at the 2014 Berlinale, Blind Massage consolidates the rebirth of Mainland director LOU Ye as a world-class talent that began with his raw, hypnotic Love and Bruises (2011), set in Paris, and continued with his atmospheric meld of love, betrayal and murder in the China-set Mystery (2012). BI Feiyu’s 2011 novel Massage has already been staged as a 2012 play by theatre director WANG Xiaoying and filmed as a controversial 30-part TV drama, See Without Looking, last year by director KANG Honglei. Lou’s version, with a different cast (mixing blind and sighted actors) and different writer (his wife, documentarian MA Yingli, 48, who studied at Berlin’s DFFB), marshals his tested technique of intense, close-up visuals and semi-documentary look to plunge the audience into a world where light and darkness lose their usual meaning but basic human emotions (love, jealousy, friendship) remain the same.

It’s a powerful, if slightly over-long, ride through a parallel world of metaphysical cinema that Lou first flirted with in Suzhou River (1999) and the big-budget Purple Butterfly (2003), before losing his way in Summer Palace (2006) and Spring Fever (2009), and then starting his renaissance with Love and Bruises. The difference here is that, instead of focusing on a couple of characters, Lou creates a true ensemble movie: the blind and partially sighted masseurs and masseuses of Sha Zonqi Massage Centre, in Nanjing, central China, a distinctly unglamorous, bottom-line undertaking run by the light-hearted Sha Fuming (Eric QIN, Spring Fever, Mystery) and the more serious Zhang Zongqi (WANG Zhihua).

Chinese filmmaker LOU Ye's (director of "Suzhou River," "Summer Palace," and many other stylistic films) most recent feature "Blind Massage" won him the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution for cinematography at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival.

Chinese filmmaker LOU Ye’s (director of “Suzhou River,” “Summer Palace,” and many other stylistic films) most recent feature “Blind Massage” won him the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution for cinematography at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival.

The film actually begins from the perspective of a young man, Xiao Ma (HUANG Xuan), who was blinded in a car accident when young and spent fruitless years in a school for the blind before joining the centre. But Lou quickly starts to dispel any thoughts that this is going to be a conventional blind movie with a handsome young lead. As the credits — heard in voice-over, not “seen” on the screen — finish, the focus shifts to Fuming and his onetime fellow villager Wang (GUO Xiaodong), who’s called to ask him for a job, before fanning out to embrace the centre’s whole community (all dignified with the title “doctor”).

Qin, who’s now beginning to establish a screen presence after a dull start to his career, plays Fuming with charm and utter believability, and, as he and other sighted actors like Huang, Guo and (as a beautiful masseuse) MEI Ting join in, Lou still lets the viewer think that conventional pairings are to develop. In fact, little happens as expected, and the main blind cast — all professional masseurs, and led by the wonderful ZHANG Lei as Wang’s buxom, sassy fiancee and Huang Junjun as a lovelorn chubby — get equal screen time, with no artificial borders between them and the professionals. That’s as much a tribute to KONG Jinlei’s smooth editing as to the performances, good as they are. And even when Xiao Ma’s story looks like reasserting its primacy, as he falls for backstreets hooker Xiao Man (HUANG Lu, Blind Mountain, 2007), Unpolitical Romance (2012), Lou always makes it clear that his plot line is just part of a broader fabric.

As the oldest and most experienced actress in the cast, Mei has a relatively small role as the masseuse who finds her looks an encumbrance and has to fend off Fuming’s advances with the observation that he’s confusing beauty and obsession with love. The same obsession drives Xiao Ma, who gets the hots for Wang’s fiancee, Kong, while also slaking his bodily desires with Xiao Man. And even the seemingly calm Wang reveals unexpected depths of rage when he protects his younger brother from loan sharks. The underlying message — that blind people are as gifted, flawed and passionate as anyone else — comes through in many forms, but via the characters and sub-stories rather than as a politically correct lecture. With the exception of Mei and Huang Xuan, whose playing is slightly more “actorly” than the rest of the cast, performances blend faultlessly, with Guo, Zhang, Qin and Huang Lu especially convincing.

Dispensing with his regular composer, Iran-born Peyman YAZDANIAN, Lou has found an ideal musical partner for Massage in Iceland’s Jóhann JÓHANNSSON, whose strings and piano score — by turns baleful, plangent, ethereal and tender — not only helps to guide the audience through the web of emotions but also provides an outstanding accompaniment to regular d.p. ZENG Jian’s realist/dream-like photography — not least in a power-cut sequence and Xiao Ma’s final apotheosis. Alongside its scenes of beauty felt or briefly glimpsed, Massage contains moments of humour, joy and pure horror, and Jóhannsson’s music is always there to add colour to Lou’s broad, metaphysical canvas.

(Reviewed by Derek Elley for Film Business Asia)

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