BLIND MOUNTAIN *** Huang Lu, Yang Youan; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (rape)
In the early 1990s, according to the New York Times, rural farmers in China could buy a wife for $500 to $800. The women were duped by traffickers who promised them good jobs or other opportunities. The transactions were illegal but common, an accepted part of life in remote communities.
"Wife" is a poor description for the victims: They were worked like beasts of burden and expected to breed children, preferably males.
These are the facts behind "Blind Mountain," a potent drama from Yang Li, one of China's Sixth Generation filmmakers noted for the stark realism and documentary feeling of their work.
"Blind Mountain" is about the parts of China that the nation's "economic miracle" hasn't reached. The lead character, Bai (Huang Lu), is a lively college graduate who, in the early '90s, is taken to the northern outback by a couple of friendly businesspeople to buy medicinal herbs, which she hopes retail for good money.
Instead, she finds she has been sold to a family of pig farmers and will be married to a highly unpleasant fellow (Yang Youan), and there's nothing she can do about it. All women go through this, says her would-be mother-in-law, as if Bai is nothing but a nervous bride. "You can't change things."
Director Li has no interest in soft-pedaling what follows. Goaded by his drinking buddies for failing to consummate the marriage, the husband rapes Bai, with assistance from his father, who helps hold her down. A catalog of misery follows: Bai is beaten, chained in her room, encounters other forced brides who advise her to get used to it, attempts suicide and makes several escape attempts.
She is befriended by the local schoolteacher (He Yunli), whose promises to help her run away come to nothing. Sometimes she resists her situation ferociously, and sometimes she bides her time, but everything conspires against her.
The real horror goes well beyond the loutish family that purchased her. Doctors at the local hospital won't lift a finger unless paid in advance. Bai's attempt at hitching a ride fails because she doesn't have a few dollars to pay the driver. The village chieftain's assurances are laughable. When a couple of outside policemen show up to help Bai, they find themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the locals.
It's a harsh portrait of a brutal segment of society, only relieved by an occasional handsome landscape shot (filmed in the Shaanxi province) that makes Bai's plight all the more compelling. It's small wonder that Chinese authorities forced Li to make cuts before the film could be shown abroad. Those cuts may account for the unduly abrupt ending.
The cast is mostly nonprofessional, except for Lu, who does a nice job of conveying how Bai retains some shreds of herself in spite of the hopelessness of her situation.
"Blind Mountain," is not rated but does feature sexual violence, including a rape scene. Running time: 95 minutes.