Blind Massage (推拿) by esteemed sixth-generation director Lou Ye was released in late November to the acclaim of critics and audiences throughout China and Asia. Indeed, eyebrows were raised when it swept the board at the Golden Horse Awards a few weeks ago, winning best film amongst six other awards. Director Lou Ye has been a darling of international critics since the 90s, and his latest movie has been his biggest release so far on the Chinese mainland – a very impressive feat considering this is a movie about blind workers at a Nanjing massage centre – especially when big budget 3D action films and blockbusters crave the attention of China’s millions of cinemagoers.
So why has Blind Massage garnered so much attention? Unlike any other movie – Chinese or western – Blind Massage dives deeper into the world of the blind than cinema has gone before. A character-driven narrative follows the lives of the workers of a Nanjing blind massage parlor – all of whom are blind or visually impaired. All of the characters coexist harmoniously at work, but away from the massage tables their personal lives and struggles with their conditions come to the fore. The jerky camera work unsettles the viewer as the camera moves in and out of focus throughout the entire film – impossible as it is to replicate visual impairments on the big screen – director Lou Ye brings the viewer into the other world in which the blind live.
This “other world” is perhaps the most profound theme of the movie – the main protagonist Fuming describes “mainstream society” as where the sighted people belong. The blind regard the sighted almost as “Gods”, respecting them while maintaining a distance. It is the points at which mainstream society and that of the blind cross that the movie explodes with drama – one character stands up to gangsters chasing his family over a debt, whilst Fuming overhears sighted colleagues describing a fellow blind co-worker Du Hong as “unbelievably beautiful.” His desire to know what beauty is, to feel and to experience it, causes pain and friction between the pair. Fuming is a charming yet tragic character who simply wants to love and be loved – but the question of “what beauty means” lingers to deep in his conscience to allow himself to accept that there are things he can see and things that he can’t.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Xiao Ma. A young sexually frustrated man who is rebuked by the wife of one of his colleagues finds solace in a local prostitute. The two appear to fall in love and find comfort in one another – not only are they linked by their work in the “massage” industry, but in each other they find the comfort of knowing they are both not part of “mainstream society”.
A slow-burning film with many memorable scenes, Lou Ye has created a masterful piece of cinema that captures both the struggles of being marginalized from society, and the inevitable search of communal comfort together on these social boundaries.
The blind and the sighted share a common belief in fate. However, the blind are able to easily accept their fate, as they know that in their world, that which can’t be seen has to be trusted. The fates that lie ahead of each character must be accepted – those characters that disrupt the fate that destiny assigns to them leave the clarity that is faith in fate and enter darkness. For the blind, that faith in fate is the only vision they possess – to enter the darkness is a very uncertain path.