ND/NF: The difficult but steady lives of Chinese coal miners in “The Shaft”
In a country whose rapidly growing economy (well, at least until recently) has fostered a surge in its need for and use of fossil fuels, someone has to do the digging. Digging for fuel, specifically in cavernous coal mines, often for very little pay and in unsafe conditions, is an increasingly common profession in rural China.
One such family who’s lives are shaped by China’s late great entry as one of the world’s industrial powers is expertly documented in Zhang Chi’s The Shaft, which examines the compromises a young woman, daughter to a retiring coal miner and sister to a young entrant in the field, has to make in the face of her family’s inability to break free from the shackles of mining work and the loss of her mother.
Although not as unrelentingly bleak as the recent festival circuit favorites of Li Yang (Blind Shaft, Blind Mountain), like his work Chi’s debut theatrical feature has an indelible sense of place and offers an valuable glimpse into life in the Chinese countryside within a country in the throes of modernization. With a delicate eye that favors tableau like settings and symmetrical compositions (which probably also informs the schematic, three part story structure), Chi’s film has a palpable verisimilitude which gives the audience a strong sense of small town life in China’s Western Provinces. Whereas Yang gets at the difficulties of life in rural China through the rhythms of arty, slow burn thriller/tragedies in communities ruled by stagnant, misogynist social codes, Chi’s more interested in the positive aspects of community and family, especially amidst difficult circumstances.
While Yang’s delves deeply into notions of filial responsibility and allegorically, he also winds up suggesting, not unlike a product of big budget Chinese cinema like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, that subservience of one’s desires to that of the state (or its preferred means of ideological control, the patriarchal family). Regardless, someone has to care for those who do this sisyphean work. Someone has to love them in the face of their industrially sponsored despair. It is in this spirit that Zhang Chi’s clinical look at the human costs of life at the bottom of the Chinese coal industry, aptly titled The Shaft, examines one family burdens with grace and dignity.