Love among the sightless is the engrossing, at times moving, dramatic thread that links multiple relationships in Blind Massage, one of the most convincing films made by Chinese director Lou Ye in recent years. Putting aside the torrid sexual and emotional dramas of works like the 2011 Love and Bruises shot in Paris and his infidelity drama Mystery, he describes these love stories as plain human affairs full of hope and frustration, poetry and banality, straddling an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination. Ye’s auteur reputation should help this Wild Bunch title to find its way to sensitive audiences.
Based Bi Feiyu’s novel,the overlapping relationships in the film have none of the glamorous fatality of glossy Hong Kong costumers, nor the prurient interest of steamy erotica. Though there are passionate scenes of coupling, they are integral to the lives of characters we come to know and care about. This isn’t the flashiest of films, but it has sincerity and feeling that connects to audiences.
An offscreen narrator first introduces Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), who lost his sight as a baby in a traffic accident that killed his mother. As a teenager he goes berserk one day and tries to cut his own throat, before being sent to a school for the blind where he learns Braille and the art of massage.
It is the golden age of “blind massage”, the narrator informs us, and Xiao Ma ends up in a cheerful institute where the personnel lives and works, run like a big family by its blind director Sha Fuming (Qin Hao who worked on Ye’s Mystery and his gay drama Spring Fever). Fuming is soon joined by his old friend Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong from A Summer Palace and Reign of Assassins), who brings with him his also nearly sightless fiancée Kong (Zhang Lei.) The girl becomes a sexual obsession for restless Xiao Ma, until he’s taken to a different sort of massage parlor down the street. In this establishment he is smitten by the young prostitute Mann (Huang Lu). Fuming, meanwhile, falls hard for the attractive Du Hong (Mei Ting), a masseuse who drives him mad. He touches her face and licks his fingers in despair at not being able to see her beauty.
These and other relationships are woven tightly together; their final outcomes are unforeseen. With the novel and Ma Yingli’s screenplay providing the framework, Ye is free to use his camera to describe the world of the blind to sighted viewers. The opening credits are read out loud by the narrator, which alerts viewers that they will be immersed in a foreign world.
Sets are uniformly busy, cramped spaces which give the feeling of living in a fish tank or a turtle bowl. The massage institute’s glass doors that Fuming keeps bumping into are echoed by the glass storefront of the brothel, where girls beckon customers inside. Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s intimate camera avoids clear images in favor of darting, expressionistic impressions, which is probably as close as a film can come to the experience of blindness, while Johan Johannsson’s varied score firmly directs the mood throughout.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 10, 2014.
Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Ma Yingli based on a novel by Bi Feiyu
Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling
Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Production design: Du Ailin
Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin
Costumes: Zhang Dingmu
Music: Johan Johannsson
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 117 minutes.