Though its background and setting is as Chinese as they come - a clinic in Nanjing specialised in massages and Chinese medicine entirely staffed by blind doctors and personnel - Blind Massage is in fact a pretty sophisticated "mosaic" picture that appropriates a more cosmopolitan narrative language to approach its subject.
In the process, Mr. Lou makes a point of avoiding the most obvious, tearjerking aspects of what could very easily be General Hospital soap opera territory. His tale of love, obsession and desire among men and women who love, live and suffer just the same as everyone else focuses happily on the emotional undercurrents percolating in the clinic; the equilibrium of personalities and commitments that makes it work and the way their interactions shape the flow of things. ("The blind understand fate better than the sighted", as it is said at one point, in a matter-of-fact but ominous statement that does encapsulate much of what goes on here.)
Blending actual blind masseurs without acting experience and professional sighted actors, Mr. Lou takes blindness in his stride as just another dramatic element in a film that aims to translate into images the intangible emotions that underlie everybody's lives. (As somebody says at some point, "for blind people, it's what you can't see that exists" - another of the keys to understand the film.) Hence the tactile, physical quality of DP Zeng Jian's stunning, volatile camera work, in close contact with bodies and faces, perfectly complemented by contemporary composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's subtle, lyrical score and the director's attention to his actors as an ensemble.
It's that physical energy that raises the director's game and Blind Massage above either exotic curio or prestige soap opera; a sense that these characters are being taken seriously and that their disability doesn't make them any less functional, or human, than "normal" people.
China, France 2014
Cast Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu
Director Lou Ye; screenwriter Ma Yingli; based on the novel Tui Na by Bi Feiyu; cinematographer Zeng Jian (colour); composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; designer Du Ailin; costumes Zhang Dingmu; editors Kong Jinlei and Zhu Lin; producers Wong Yong, Nai An, Li Ling and Kristina Larsen; production companies Shaanxi Culture Industry, Inhai, Dream Factory and Les Films du Lendemain
Screened February 10th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)