There are any number of scams going on in "Blind Shaft," but we get the nastiest one out of the way first. Three men sit griping at the bottom of a murky mineshaft in northern China; without warning, two of them beat the third to death and cause a small cave-in. Back up top, the pair shake down the illegal mine's owner for survivor's benefits, since the dead man was posing as one of their relatives. They take the money, shack up with a couple of hookers, then go looking for a new victim.
Big surprise: The government of China has banned this film.
Li Yang's compellingly no-frills drama tours the lower depths of China's booming market economy and spotlights the parasites who flourish there, but don't go in expecting a whistle-blowing expose of socialist misdeeds. "Blind Shaft" is a character study that focuses tightly on two amoral sharks doing all they can to survive. If you want to infer a larger statement, that's your business.
Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) aren't perfectly matched in soullessness. The former is better at playing the bad cop in their con games but displays glints of a conscience when discussing his daughter back home. While Tang shows a friendlier face to the rubes, he believes in little beyond the next meal, the next payday, and the next prostitute.
When the duo stumble upon a new dupe, "Blind Shaft" starts to resemble a dyspeptic Mandarin-language version of the old Jack Nicholson classic "The Last Detail." Feng Ming (Wang Baoqiang) is a 16-year-old kid fresh off the farm who needs money to send his sister to school. He hasn't worked in a mine before, he's a virgin, he reads books. He's also willing to do whatever the older men say. Song and Tang can scarcely believe their luck.
Feng Ming's earnestness starts to get under Song's skin, though, which prompts worried grumbling from his partner: Will he be able to drop the hammer when the time comes? I won't say where the film goes from there, other than to note that the resolution is both more cynical and more sentimental than you may expect.
In any event, "Blind Shaft" is less striking for its storyline than for the world it presents -- a rural moonscape of coal-dust, casual environmental disaster, and atavistic behavior. No one is not struggling for survival, including the owners of the mines themselves, shoestring tycoons one harried step from liquidation. If there's a God or a government here, they're miles away and busy with other matters.
Human decency does occasionally raise its head, and is all the more touching for its randomness. One of the main characters goes to the post office to wire money home and bumps into the hooker with whom he cavorted the night before. She, too, is sending earnings off to her family, and suddenly they're not client and sex provider but two awkward fish caught in the same trap.
There's a political subtext there, but one that has no bearing on these people or their lives. As much is made clear when Song and Tang get drunk and sing a socialist marching song from their youth, substituting raunchy lyrics for the ones they can no longer remember. This is China's new Cultural Devolution in all its tatty splendor, and a scene to give a government censor heart failure.
("Blind Shaft": ***)
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.