While the storytelling sometimes struggles to convince, the technical prowess of Lou Ye’s team in capturing the extraordinary performances and putting together one mesmerizing and sensual image after another is deserving of praise.
Dir. Lou Ye
2014 | China | Drama | 110 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin
R21 (passed clean) for sexual scenes
Cast: Guo Xiaodong, Huang Lu, Huang Xuan
Plot: At a massage centre run by the blind, damaged bodies find relief beneath sensitive fingers. A new couple comes to work at the centre. The others are drawn to them.
Awards: Won Silver Bear for Cinematography (Berlinale); Won 6 Golden Horses – Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects, Best New Performer & Nom. for Best Director
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Moderate – Blindness
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Singapore Chinese Film Festival
First Published: 14 Jun 2016
Lou Ye, who broke into the international scene with Suzhou River (2000), a key work of the Sixth Generation Chinese cinema, has been a figure of controversy for many years with films like the sexually explicit and political Summer Palace (2006), withdrawn from competition at the Cannes Film Festival at the behest of the Chinese government, and the gay drama Spring Fever (2009).
His latest, Blind Massage, a Silver Bear winner (for cinematography) at the Berlin International Film Festival, charts a different path. It is less political, and hence less powerful, though it is no less challenging to behold.
Centering on a massage parlour that is run by blind masseurs (who are thankfully not a cult of Zatoichi worshippers), Lou’s work follows several characters as they carry out their daily work and activities in the cosy space. Sometimes they venture out into the city.
By employing experimental camerawork that affords us the limited visual scope of the blind—the use of focus and selective blurring is brilliant—we are forced into a perspective that yields an uncomfortable sense of intimacy in tight indoor spaces, and heightened disorientation in the outdoors.
One particular sequence sees one of the blind characters being shoved out of a parlour running a small prostitution ring. As he wanders alone in the city seeking solace, the camerawork and sound design escalate the tension and overwhelm him. This is possibly the film’s most powerful sequence, one that expresses the sheer vulnerability of a blind person facing inconceivable alienation.
The performances are extraordinary, from a largely nonprofessional cast who display a remarkable range of emotions with ease. The cinematography also intensifies their performances, giving us one mesmerizing and sensual image after another.
Blind Massage, however, struggles to convince in the storytelling department. The impetus to continue watching doesn’t come from a clear narrative hook, nor does it come from a well-told story. At the end of the day, the stories of these characters don’t really hold sway over you. But Lou’s craft and technical bravado do.