Of Memories and Justice Down the Blind Shaft: Reviewing Blind Shaft
Blind Shaft the name itself would seem to suggest not only the dark cold mine shaft cut off from the rest of the world but also a place so dark and isolated that it is beyond the reach of the law and justice.
It seems unfit to write a substantial piece on a movie without explaining its basic premise and the plot. So here it goes: The movie begins with the two central characters of the movie (as we discover later) Tang and Song speaking with a fellow miner in a coal mine. As he talks about his longing to return home, they hit him over the head killing him and make it look like an accident. They come out of the mine and start acting as if the dead was the brother of Tang.
After some shrewd negotiations they manage to extort twenty eight grand from the mine owner to hush up the matter. It is quite evident that they are well experienced in this little scam of theirs. They leave the mine soon after and go on a spending spree enjoying the pleasures of life. Soon they run out of money and as they stand in a town market among the crowd waiting for work opportunities, they stumble upon a young 16 year-old boy and it is only inevitable that they immediately see in him their new victim. They get him to memorize a new name and ask him to lie about his age. Then they take him to some other mine as the nephew of Tang and plan to kill him off at an opportune moment and make a killing from his death.
An unknown death: is forgetting denial of justice?
Blind Shaft the name itself would seem to suggest not only the dark cold mine shaft cut off from the rest of the world but also a place so dark and isolated that it is beyond the reach of the law and justice. A place where neither there is “no union, no safety standards, pitifully low wages, no law. Given such an environment, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that the worst aspects of humanity rise to the surface.” As far as the state and its law is concerned, the mines have been closed after being considered too dangerous and don’t even exist. The workers working there are of course then the “non existent non people”.
According to Soshana Felman life for the dead resides in remembrance by the living of their story and justice for the dead resides in the remembrance of the injustice done to them. This would mean that the biggest injustice to the dead can be being forgotten or worse still dying an unknown death.
In Blind Shaft the person who is chosen as a target by the duo is obviously someone who is alone and has no other friend or relative working with him. In all possibility even his family is also not aware where he is. There is no one who knows the story of his life. No one would come to know when he dies that who it was that died; that is who other than a nameless and faceless mineworker.
In Blind Shaft, the trace of the dead is removed from the face of the world and there is no one who would remember him after his death. His death would be a complete waste and consequently turning his life in a complete waste. After all of what use is a life if it does not get a worthy death and of what use is a death if no one notices it and no one remembers it. It is very difficult for one to empathize with suicide bombers or what that matter any one who willingly gives up his life for a cause or faith or an emotion. But undoubtedly one driving force would be the satisfaction that one is dying a worthy death and that it would be recognized and remembered. All of us all our lives yearn that our lives should be more than a sum of all the time that we spent in this world. It should represent something bigger, more magnificent and perhaps more meaningful than a simple fact of our existence. Some people take refuge in love, others in hatred, or battles of religion. Some others just look for a lasting death; something which is denied to the victims in Blind Shaft.
If the only impact of a death left in the world is the memories of the dead, then perhaps someone who dies an unknown death is not dead at all. In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawk go to a cemetery, which does not have the names of the dead on the tombstones. No one knows who the dead were. Most probably they were dead from capsized boats and suicides at the beginning of the 20th century. It is called ‘the cemetery of no name’. She says to him, “….if none of your family or friends knew you were dead…its like not really being dead. The people could invent the best and the worst for you.”
In one instance in Blind Shaft, Song is quite disturbed by the possibility that the kid that they plan to kill might be the son of one of their earlier victims. He does not want his entire family line to be ended by killing the kid. The family line is not about the gene pool. It means to keep alive the name of the family; to keep alive the memories of the dead. If the entire family line would be wiped out, there would be no one to remember the dead. That seems to Song as being a greater injustice than actually killing a man.
In Blind Shaft, there is no justice for the dead because by virtue of dying an unknown death they are not dead (as their friends and family do not know that they are dead). As far as the law is concerned it does not know that they are dead or that they existed in the first place. So of course, there is no hope for justice for those whose death has also been forgotten or rather not registered in the memory at all.
A diagonal opposition of this would be the fate of Clementis in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. What happens there is an act of active disrememberance. There after Clementis found himself out of favour with the authorities, all his photographs from public records were removed so as to punish him for his crime. Clearly, public memory was seen as an effective territory for charting out justice.
The Villains: or rather the victims?
There are certain circumstances when the acts that would normally be considered as crimes punishable under law are excused. These circumstances or defenses as they are referred to in the legalese range from self defense, accident, mistake, superior orders and so on. In most of these cases the legal jurisprudence is well established and the exceptions are available in only very strict circumstances. Of course as far as the moral guilt is concerned, the lines are not so clearly drawn. An act of violence if done to protect not just life but even dignity and honour would seem to be morally justifiable even if legally punishable. The same would probably also ring true for crimes committed in vengeance.
So what can be said about the moral guilt of the killer duo in the movie?
It is a very bleak world which is painted in the Blind Shaft, where everyone seems to be driven by the same idea of surviving at the expense of the others. While the movie does not make any attempts to justify the actions of the killer duo by showing that they are in some desperate need of money or that they cannot get any other work or that they have suffered some deep injustice which has resulted in their emotional insulation but somewhere down the movie one starts to identify with the psyche of the killer duo. They are not exactly maniacal blood thirsty criminals. For them it seems to be just the only possible way of making a decent living and supporting their families. Well, they are quite cold blooded in the sense that they do not feel sympathy for their victim or suffer from guilt pangs but they do not particularly relish the act of killing as well. They have a very business like attitude and a meticulous routine for everything right down to the lines of conversation with the soon to be deceased just before he is murdered.
But as the movie unfolds you realize that in the land of abject poverty, lawlessness of the greedy mine owners and callous ‘hand in glove’ agents of law, they are indeed walking on a thin line between survival and elimination. Even when they are extracting the money from the mine owners they have to be careful not to ask for too much because if it would be cheaper for the mine owner to kill both of them off and instead pay the cops to hush up the matter, the ruthless mine owner would not hesitate from doing so. In a dog eats dog world, they are at a quite low rung in the food chain. As the movie approaches its ending you can understand if not support the rationale of the killer duo. It is a very raw animal instinct of survival which is unmasked here which everyone can identify with. It leaves you a bit uncomfortable because all our attempts at civilizing ourselves have been aimed at concealing this natural instinct. This is what Blind Shaft exposes. In a place devoid of the fear of authority or dictates of civilization, in a “world without rules” our animal instincts do take over but it makes us uncomfortable to imagine such a scenario.
Narrative Justice in Blind Shaft
In a piece of fiction whether on paper or movie screen, it is possible to do justice even when the law has failed to do so. This is what is called ‘poetic’ or narrative justice- perhaps a literary equivalent of what is known as the ‘divine justice’ in real life. So all said and done, in the end, the good guys have to win and the bad guys have to lose (unless of course one is making a movie like Zodiac or No Country for Old Men where winning or losing are quite immaterial). Why do authors/narrators employ this device called ‘narrative justice’ is not difficult to fathom. It restores a sense of balance of positive and the negative in the narrative. While, this may or may not happen in the real world, the possibility of restoring this balance by a swoosh of a few words is too difficult for any narrator to let pass by. It is also often an invocation of the intervention of the divine or the natural order. Therefore, even though law might fail to punish a guilty but the circumstances would deliver justice upon him.
Blind Shaft also employs narrative justice to make the ending of an otherwise bleak and uncomforting movie rather ‘just’ and acceptable. The killers get their ‘due’ and the innocent not only escapes unharmed but also earns a substantial amount from the death of his ‘would have been’ killers. It is quite ironical that the contract that Tang and Song enter into with the mine owner to make money from the death of the kid actually ends up in earning money for the kid. Although one can feel sorry for Song who actually develops traces of affection for the kid and is reluctant to kill him and the story is as harsh to him as it is to Tang who remains dispassionate, focused and rather cruel. But then hey, Song still has to pay for his past deeds, right? So his karma catches up with him and the way he meets his end is quite ‘just’ as per the statutes of narrative justice.
If retribution is the only manifestation of justice then perhaps narrative justice delivers justice quite efficiently and effectively. All the victims of Song and Tang who did not have access to law or justice get redemption in one fell swoop through narrative justice by their dying of each other’s hands. Although the people whose lives have been forgotten and deaths not even registered in the memories in the first place can perhaps never attain justice. Not even after their killers have been punished at the hands of narrative justice.
- Shoshana Felman, “The Storyteller’s Silence: Walter Benjamin’s Dilemma of Justice, part Two,” The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge MA: Harvard U.P, 2002.
- Elvis Mitchell, “Film Review; Descending Into the Pit Of Humanity”, The New York Times, February 4, 2004.
- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Translated from French by Aaron Asher, first Published in Great Britain by Faber and Faber Limited in 1996.
- Before Sunset (Dir: Richard Linklater)
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