Men shuffle and button shirts, their heads down, their silhouettes slender. The light is low in the locker room where they prepare for work, but in the next few minutes the shadows grow even more pronounced, as they crowd into an elevator and clang close the gate of a door, their helmets bobbing, lamps casting shafts of light. They’re coal miners, and as the elevator grinds into gear, they head down into the shaft where they will spend the very long day.
These opening scenes reveal the remarkable combination of depth and delicacy that structures The Shaft (Dixia de Tiankong). Zhang Chi’s first feature opens 21 January for a week’s run during MOMA’s Global Lens 2010, and offers up he literal shaft as a broadly resonant metaphor — for the focus, limits, and intensity of lives lived day-to-day. Among the nearly faceless workers who muddle and bump in small spaces, the story of Jingshui (Luoqian Zheng) and Song Daming (Chen Li) begins. When Daming emerges from the mine each afternoon, he gives his girlfriend Jingshui a ride home on the back of his bike. They pause regularly to watch the train on its way to Beijing, the city they imagine provides other options, far from their crushing routines in rural Western China. But when she announces she’s leaving (“I don’t want to live like this the rest of my life”), he doesn’t know why, or how desperately she means what she says.
Jingshui’s oppressing complications are sketched when you see her called into the unseen Manager’s office: she stands reluctant at the office door, head bowed as she begins her own daily descent. You don’t see details, you don’t even see inside the office, but the bend of her neck tells you everything. When he hears rumors of her “affair,” reduced to raunchy gossip in the men’s shower, Daming is distraught, another moment that occurs off screen, as he stumbles into the shower room and the camera remains poised outside, so only the sounds of punches and raised voices and running feet on wet tile can be heard.
The Shaft underscores the difficulty of communication in the absence of hope in two more, related stories, concerning Jinghsui’s brother Jingsheng (Xuan Huang), an unenthusiastic student and aspiring pop singer who has long refused to work in the mine, and their father Baogen (Deyuan Luo), who has worked there all his life. (Jingsheng, like his sister, is determined to leave town, explaining to a friend, “All the pop stars are in Beijing,” even as he can only imagine, based on his TV viewing, what a “pop star” is.) Each night, the family eats at a small table, clicking chopsticks to porcelain as a TV eerily illuminates their faces. When Baogen tells his daughter that an aunt in the city has a man for her to meet, she resists only briefly, hoping Daming might give her reason to stay. His utter inability to articulate his sense of betrayal or even to ask her about what he’s heard is made clear in a long shot of the couple, standing forlorn as the sun sets over a lake. When she tells Daming about her aunt’s proposal, he literally jumps into the lake, leaving her alone on the bank, her slim form barely visible in the fading light.
Other sorts of devastation shape Ocean of an Old Man (screening 21 and 24 January) and My Tehran for Sale (screening 28 January). Set in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, Rajesh Shera’s Ocean follows the efforts of a British-born schoolteacher (Tom Alter) to accept the loss of his wife and daughter, while also searching for missing students on the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar. As he gazes on the endlessly stretching sea, his face reflects a mix of wonder and fear, yearning and determination, meaning to survive but also imagining alternatives. His past is rendered in full-color clips, his wife (Iris Maya Tittleback) and young Mui dressed in perfectly nostalgic dresses, their images dissolving in and out of his flashbacks.
His search for the missing children is at once poetic, forlorn, and ambitious, the film arranged as a series of shots and reverse shots — the ocean or the island, observed by and absorbing the old man. Tree branches wave in the wind, waves lap on the shore, and birds soar overhead, each element mirroring the man’s shifting emotional state. In the classroom — a tiny space with a blackboard on the front all and a few rows of rudimentary wooden desks — he faces his charges, their faces upturned, their attention distracted when a man arrives with moving pictures in a box. All travel from island to island — home to school — by small boat, so that each day’s travel invokes the unpredictable power of the ocean. The old man respects this, even as he rages and weeps, succumbs and doubts each step of his so-called healing process.
Granaz Moussavi’s My Tehran for Sale starring Marzieh Vafamehr as Marzieh, an Iranian actress detained for two years in Australia. As she recounts her story, her shaved head and drawn face indicates both her frustration and her patience. Answering a government interrogator’s questions, Marzieh describes how she came to be so far from home, or more precisely, how home became so distant.
Flashbacks reveal that she and Saman (Amir Chegini), an Iranian-born Australian citizen she meets at a rave, plan to marry and move to Adelaide. Their ambition to escape finds a kind of correlative in the art they make and seek out — her performances on stage, part mime and part modern dance, illustrating violence against fearful yet resilient citizens, as well as musicians they support in underground clubs, including Mohsen Namjou (the “Bob Dylan of Iran”). Cinematographer Bonnie Elliot’s camera seems as restless as Marzieh’s spirit: much of the film was shot illicitly, chaotic handheld images showing the authorities breaking up a rave, scenes of parties and social gatherings cobbled together from footage that was smuggled out of Iran in backpacks.
All three movies trace emotional upheaval, and especially the strength individuals find in themselves when faced with what seem impossible constraints. While My Tehran for Sale and Ocean of an Old Man focus on particular crises, The Shaft alludes to what might be termed ongoing catastrophe pictured in images that are nearly abstract and frequently breathtaking. Each film — like all those assembled for Global Lens 2010 — looks through the prisms of individual experiences to find resounding truths.