At a slickly run massage centre in Nanjing, sight-impaired massuers and masseuses are employed in a wonderful environment that's an oasis outside of mainstream society.

 

4.5

After its much-commented premiere at Berlin, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage continued its run of the festival circuit at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. An original and at times confronting ensemble piece, Blind Massage looks at the relationships between various blind practitioners at a massage clinic in the Chinese city of Nanjing. For centuries, the visually impaired of Japan, Korea and China have been trained in massage techniques where the emphasis is on touch rather than sight, so they may be financially self-supporting in their community.

"compelling and often moving"

While no single character dominates, in setting up his scenario, director Lou (known for Suzhou River and more recently Mystery) begins by providing the backstory on Xiao Ma (played by sighted actor Huang Xuan), who lost his eyesight after being in a childhood car accident. To enhance the audience’s ability to empathise with Xiao’s traumatic experience and the damage to his visual faculties, the director frequently alters the focus and dims the brightness, providing an optical match to the way Xiao himself sees the world. Whenever the camera switches its emphasis to a sighted person, the film slowly moves into sharper focus again. The intermittent use of this blindness effect sometimes resembles abstract art, but as challenging as the images can be to interpret, they are essentially representational.

A distraction from the sometimes opaque imagery is a persistent – almost overbearing – voiceover, which moves on from Xiao to introduce other blind characters all of whom work, or will work at, the massage centre run by the cheerful but lonely and lovestruck Sha Fuming (Eric Qin). The film's voiceover sets up the characters' hopes, failed romances and familial complications. For an alleged cinematic experience, this would seem to be telling the audience far more than it is showing, but it’s all to a purpose. Driving the point home, the voiceover reads out the opening credits, rather than have them superimposed on the screen as is normal practice. Lou seems determined to replicate what a visually impaired person may experience while ‘watching’ a movie. In doing so, Lou highlights to the sighted audience, a blind person’s dependence on a narrator's guiding voice and other audio clues. Once the director’s intention becomes clear, Blind Massage reveals itself as an audacious cinematic experiment that is frequently revelatory and transcendent. For this factor alone, it is one of the most startling films about vision since Gary Tarn’s documentary Black Sun about blinded French painter Hugues de Montalembert. Furthermore, by mixing sighted actors and unsighted actors (some of whom are real-life masseurs), You's film seamlessly blends its visual techniques with a documentary feel that reinforces the authenticity of its scenario while ensuring that the film’s multiple story strands equal emphasis. The result is compelling and often moving.

However, Blind Massage is not without flaws. Some might describe one imperfection as a quibble of political correctness, but still it bears mentioning.

Blind Massage is at times sexually frank (within the confines of Chinese censorship), and the film has multiple romantic and erotic entanglements, between the various characters working in the clinic. The actors are all competent adults, and have presumably agreed to act in accordance with a script, based on a novel by Bi Feiyu, and that they may have even read both read script and book. However, being visually impaired, it is arguable that the unsighted actors would be unaware of just how exposed they are under the camera's gaze. With tongues lashing and ample flesh (though no visible genitals), the uncomfortable feeling of participating in illicit voyeurism is increased by the knowledge that the actors cannot veto what the camera sees, or tailor their performance to accommodate the reach of the camera. (The contrary argument is that not many sighted actors have that power either.)

How much of the feeling of being a trespasser on a blind character’s private world is Lou deliberately exploiting for our (sighted viewers) discomfort and how much is a violation of the amateur actor’s rights and disability is a matter of taste, but the question does not neutralise the film’s power. Film pioneer D.W. Griffith used to emphasise the importance of making an audience ‘see’. Blind Massage truly pushes audiences to see a movie in a whole new way.

Details

1 hour 57 min

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