Straight out of college, Bai (Huang) believes she’s hit pay dirt when she gets the opportunity to sell herbal medicine to rural mountain dwellers. After she’s drugged and abandoned by her patrons, however, the reality of her situation becomes clear: Bai has been “married,” i.e., sold to a farmer (Yang). Rape, beatings, hard labor and a numbing sense of hopelessness characterize her new life. The entire village conspires to keep her from leaving; each near-escape is choreographed like a nightmarish horror-movie set piece. (Imagine a Chinese version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, minus the gore, chain saws and guy in a human-skin mask.) Even when our heroine thinks she’s found a way out, the audience knows the score: We sense that the postman Bai passes letters to isn’t sending them, or that the schoolteacher (Yunle) who promises freedom in exchange for sex will prove a dead end, long before she clues in.
Part Asian-miserablism slog and part PSA—parents, don’t let your daughters become custom-order brides!—Blind Mountain puts its unlucky female protagonist through paces that date back to Griffith. It’s not that director Li Yang doesn’t wring some potent, socially conscious humanism out of his baldly melodramatic scenario. But unlike Blind Shaft (2003), in which he sublimely and effectively criticized the corrupting influence of capitalism within a satisfying noir, the message overpowers the medium. For all its regional specificity and grit, the majority of Blind Mountain’s turns could have come from any Hollywood-issue flick. You can practically hear Charlize Theron bidding for the remake rights.