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February 12, 2014

Blind Massage (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:44 pm

Blind Massage

FEBRUARY 10, 2014
Maggie Lee

This tactful drama about sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses is one of Lou Ye’s more absorbing films in recent memory.

Non-conformist Chinese auteur Lou Ye has always trained his sensuous gaze on outsiders, and in “Blind Massage,” he explores the fringe existence of sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses from an unsentimental distance. Demystifying their specialized profession and evoking their arduous search for love and stability, Lou’s detachment — often an artsy pose in his other films — has a kind of tactfulness here that allows these absorbing stories to speak for themselves. The helmer’s second feature made with the Chinese film bureau’s official approval, this French-Chinese co-production is no more mainstream than his previous work. Likely to enjoy critical buzz but lukewarm domestic B.O., it will nonetheless find its way into his usual festivals and European arthouses.

At the Sha Zongqi Massage Center in Nanjing, fully and partially blind employees enjoy an oasis outside what they call “mainstream society.” Run on a slick management model by blind partners Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua) and Sha Fuming (Qin Hao), the masseurs are respectfully called “doctors” and attain dignity through their skill and self-sufficiency. While Zongqi is a man of few words, Fuming is an outgoing charmer whose hobbies including writing poetry and visiting dance halls for the retired.

Into this close-knit community comes Sha’s old classmate Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), broke from stock losses in Shenzhen, and eloping with his young, foxy, partially sighted g.f. Kong (Zhang Lei). Then comes proud, self-contained Du Hong (Mei Ting, perfectly poised), who regards her clients’ daily flattery on her beauty a nuisance, and who is doggedly courted by Fuming; she rejects him, dismissing his professed love as “an obsession with a concept,” since he cannot grasp what physical beauty is. Another young masseur is handsome lad Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), whose hormones are racing and who becomes infatuated with Kong. His heart remains set on her even after his pal Yiguang (Mu Huaipeng) initiates him into the pleasures of Nanjing’s red-light district, where he and sassy sex worker Mann (Wang Lu) find casual emotional refuge in each other.

Bi Feiyu’s source novel (adapted by Ma Yingli) has been lauded for avoiding the inspirational/patronizing tone of most mainland literature on the disabled, and Lou shows similar integrity by conveying the experience of living in the dark from his subjects’ perspective. With his signature fluid and intimate film language, he captures the touchy-feely way in which protags interact among themselves, and honestly acknowledges their sexual desires and deprivations.

Adopting a clean and simple storyline that focuses on ensemble acting rather than on the narrative riddles and knotty reversals that have defined his oeuvre, Lou delves into each protag’s emotional world with a documentary-like observational style that is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Gradually their individual hangups surface, revealing the unspoken wounds of social discrimination — as when Fuming goes on (of all things) a blind date, taking a risk that only reinforces the futility of his hopes of becoming integrated into society, or when Wang vents his own self-loathing and injured pride in a shockingly gory confrontation with debt collectors. Other than a somewhat manufactured and overwrought twist in the third act, the film wraps on a gently forlorn that captures the randomness and mutability of life.

The professional actors, many of them Lou regulars, mingle comfortably with their sight-impaired amateur counterparts. Of the latter group, Zhang gives a knockout perf as the coquettish Kong; fearlessly voluptuous in sex scenes that might make professional actresses blush, she is a radiant presence, even in the rare moments when she’s subdued by sadness or insecurity. The film also marks a significant breakthrough for Qin, proving that his range extends beyond the morose roles he played in Lou’s “Spring Fever” and “Mystery.” Although he’s obviously spent considerable time mastering the body language and facial expressions of the blind, he goes beyond that to express the frustration and loneliness beneath Fuming’s man-of-the-world facade and upbeat demeanor.

Limning a different brand of disaffection from Qin’s, Guo draws on the simmering rage he’s evinced past roles to convey Wang’s uphill struggle as he tries to make a comeback in life. Looking careworn even when he should be finding comfort in Kong’s passionate embrace, Guo imbues his climactic outburst with reverberant power.

Lou’s fondness for shakily handheld, artfully opaque cinematography (notably in “Purple Butterfly” and “Spring Fever”) finds a less pretentious channel in lenser Zeng Jian’s highly tactile re-creation of the characters’ impaired vision, conveyed through blurry image textures, spatially distorted closeups, lurching camera movements and off-kilter angles; by contrast, the sound design, although fine, could have more inventively reflected the protags’ hypersensitive hearing. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“Prisoners”), who collaborated with Lou on “Mystery,” contributes an ambient, minimalist score that effectively builds to an elegiac melody, incorporating classical Chinese flute music toward the end. Other craft contributions are stylish; the muggy, misty ambience of Nanjing, shot here in constant torrential rain, fuels the downcast mood.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Blind Massage’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2014. Running time: 117 MIN. Original title: “Tui na”

(China-France) A Shaanxi Culture Industry, Yinhai, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain presentation of a Shaanxi Culture Industry, Les Films du Lendemain production, in association with Zhu Hongbo, Cui Yujie. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Wang Yong. Executive producers, Lou Ye, Nai An, Li Ling, Kristina Larsen. Co-executive producers, Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen.

Directed by Lou Ye. Screenplay, Ma Yingli, based on the novel “Tui na” by Bi Feiyu. Camera (color, HD), Zeng Jian; editors, Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin; music, Johann Johannsson; production designer, Du Ailin; costume designer, Zhang Dingmu; sound (Dolby Digital), Fu Kang; visual effects supervisor, Liu Song; visual effects, Imade Forest; assistant director, Lu Ying; casting, Zhang Rong.

Qin Hao, Guo Xiaodong, Huang Xuan, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua, Wang Lu. (Mandarin dialogue)

Blind Massage (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:29 pm

Blind Massage
2/10/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
Involving human dramas unfold in a Chinese massage institute run by the blind, in one of Lou Ye’s most engaging films.

Festival director Lou Ye changes pace to show the dignity, sacrifice and joy of the sightless.

Love among the sightless is the engrossing, at times moving, dramatic thread that links multiple relationships in Blind Massage, one of the most convincing films made by Chinese director Lou Ye in recent years. Putting aside the torrid sexual and emotional dramas of works like the 2011 Love and Bruises shot in Paris and his infidelity drama Mystery, he describes these love stories as plain human affairs full of hope and frustration, poetry and banality, straddling an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination. Ye’s auteur reputation should help this Wild Bunch title to find its way to sensitive audiences.

Based Bi Feiyu’s novel,the overlapping relationships in the film have none of the glamorous fatality of glossy Hong Kong costumers, nor the prurient interest of steamy erotica. Though there are passionate scenes of coupling, they are integral to the lives of characters we come to know and care about. This isn’t the flashiest of films, but it has sincerity and feeling that connects to audiences.

An offscreen narrator first introduces Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), who lost his sight as a baby in a traffic accident that killed his mother. As a teenager he goes berserk one day and tries to cut his own throat, before being sent to a school for the blind where he learns Braille and the art of massage.

It is the golden age of “blind massage”, the narrator informs us, and Xiao Ma ends up in a cheerful institute where the personnel lives and works, run like a big family by its blind director Sha Fuming (Qin Hao who worked on Ye’s Mystery and his gay drama Spring Fever). Fuming is soon joined by his old friend Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong from A Summer Palace and Reign of Assassins), who brings with him his also nearly sightless fiancée Kong (Zhang Lei.) The girl becomes a sexual obsession for restless Xiao Ma, until he’s taken to a different sort of massage parlor down the street. In this establishment he is smitten by the young prostitute Mann (Huang Lu). Fuming, meanwhile, falls hard for the attractive Du Hong (Mei Ting), a masseuse who drives him mad. He touches her face and licks his fingers in despair at not being able to see her beauty.

These and other relationships are woven tightly together; their final outcomes are unforeseen. With the novel and Ma Yingli’s screenplay providing the framework, Ye is free to use his camera to describe the world of the blind to sighted viewers. The opening credits are read out loud by the narrator, which alerts viewers that they will be immersed in a foreign world.

Sets are uniformly busy, cramped spaces which give the feeling of living in a fish tank or a turtle bowl. The massage institute’s glass doors that Fuming keeps bumping into are echoed by the glass storefront of the brothel, where girls beckon customers inside. Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s intimate camera avoids clear images in favor of darting, expressionistic impressions, which is probably as close as a film can come to the experience of blindness, while Johan Johannsson’s varied score firmly directs the mood throughout.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 10, 2014.
Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Ma Yingli based on a novel by Bi Feiyu
Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling
Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Production design: Du Ailin
Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin
Costumes: Zhang Dingmu
Music: Johan Johannsson
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 117 minutes.


February 11, 2014

Blind Massage (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:33 pm

Blind Massage
10 February, 2014
By Fionnuala Halligan

Tui Na, the Chinese title of Blind Massage, is a form of therapy often practiced in China’s medical massage centres for the blind. There are over 50,000 licensed blind masseuses in China, and Bi Feiyu’s best-selling novel, which Ma Yingli has adapted for the big screen, focuses on the lives and loves of the practicioners in one such Nanjing centre. It’s not hard to figure out why Lou Ye (Mystery, Shouzou River) was technically attracted to this project, and he throws every angle of light and darkness at its visual ebb and flow, from jarring moments of high melodrama to the more gentle, blurred edges of love.

With the book well-known in China, coupled with some bravura performances from blind and sighted actors alike, Blind Massage stands to perform well in the domestic marketplace. International reaction may be more divided, however, with some seeking a more coherent piece. While on the one hand, Lou abandons restraint to visually stretch the envelope in an exciting if occasionally confusing way, Blind Massage also has a tendency to trip over into high melodrama. With so many of the ensemble cast given a bloody resolution, Lou’s screenplay can often be careless with his hard-earned credibility.

Lou Ye has enjoyed a chequered history with censorship at home even as he has found consistent support amongst international festivals and financiers. Blind Massage, following on from 2012’s Mystery, is an officially-approved production, however, world premiering in Berlin’s Competition and co-produced by the Shaanxi Culture Industry with Lou’s own Dream Factory. With its cast of characters making their hesitant way through the Nanjing rain, it calls to mind the downpours of Mystery, which seems like an obvious commercial parallel.

Blind Massage fields an ensemble cast of blind masseurs, some played by the sighted, most notably Lou Ye’s regular collaborators Guo Xiaodong and Qin Hao. Spring Fever’s Xuang Xuan and Huang Lu play the angry young blind boy Xiao Ma, who kicks off the film with a botched suicide attempt, and his prostitute lover Mann. Mei Ting is Du Hong, the centre’s beautiful masseuse. They share scenes with blind actors including Zhang Lei as Kong, who has a natural ease.

Guo, whose relationship with the director stretches back to Summer Palace, and Qin, who appeared in Spring Fever, play old college friends who are reunited in the bustling, professional centre run by Dr Sha (Qin). Dr Wang (Guo) has arrived in Nanjing with his partially-sighted fiancé Kong, but their relationship is troubled – her parents will never accept a fully-blind man as her husband, while his brother and parents are in trouble with loan sharks.

Dr Sha, a hopeless romantic and poet in a fruitless search for love, falls hopelessly for Du Hong, who is attracted to Xiao Ma in this slightly soapy scenario. All stories will come to a violent resolution, though, as You’s camera drifts in and out of focus, zooming between light and dark, greys and reds. “The blind are in the light, while the sighted hide in the shadows,” concludes the screenplay, and it is indeed a poignant observation. You Le’s camera illuminates and shades their existence in all its heightened emotions.

Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory

International sales:Wild Bunch,

Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling

Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen

Screenplay: Ma Yingli, from the novel by Bi Feiyu

Cinematography: Zeng Jian

Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin

Production designer: Du Ailin

Music: Johann Johannson

Main cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan
Screen Daily

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