On the surface, the story of blind masseurs in the city of Nanjing doesn't sound like the stuff of intense drama – but director Lou Ye turns it into the stuff of great, compelling drama in Blind Massage, based on the novel by Bi Feiyu.
The shocking opening scene serves as fair warning for the rest of the film: Discovering that he's been blinded in a car accident, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan) takes a rice bowl in the hospital and slices his neck to commit suicide. Xiao Ma survives the attempt, and eventually finds work as one of the blind masseurs at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center, co-founded by Sha Fuming (Qin Hao). One day, Fuming’s old village friend Wang (Guo Xiaodong) appears seeking a job for both himself and his fiancé Kong (Zhang Lei). However, the presence of the newcomers will greatly complicate the dynamics of the team.
Lou and his writer (and wife) Ma Yingli have a huge cast of characters to juggle, but they manage to give each one a strong plotline, from Xiao Ma and Kong's illicit relationship to Fuming's struggle to keep the center afloat, to another story of unrequited love amongst the team members. Lou doesn't waste a single minute of screentime and fills the film with engaging stories that paint a full portrait of everyone in the center.
Like his other films, Lou and his cinematographer Zeng Jian opt to shoot in mostly close-ups. The decision makes even more sense here, as Lou and Zeng use the shallow depth of field to recreate the impaired perception of a blind person. It's a brilliant visual device (especially in an extended dream-like sequence near the end of the film's second act) that truly brings the audiences into the world of the characters. Zeng deservedly received a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his work.
In the end, it's Lou Ye who really makes Blind Massage the compelling film that it is. Lou deserves credit for bringing together the unique strength of the individual elements – including his talented, fearless cast of both professionals and non-professionals – and creating a work of art that stirs, entertains and shocks its audiences in equal measure. Its intensity can be mentally taxing at times, but Blind Massage is a moving human drama that’s easily one of the best Chinese films of 2014.
(Kevin Ma, 10/2016)