Lou Ye, defiantly controversial, has made those who cannot, for one reason or another, embrace their own desires the centre of his cinema. Seeking connection, his protagonists reel desperately from one traumatic event to the next but resist full commitment, no longer able to believe in the truth of their feelings in a society which has so often betrayed them. Blind Massage (推拿, Tuīná), a radical departure from the provocative politicisation that has hitherto marked his cinema, takes this one step further in setting itself inside what it sees as an entirely isolationist world – that of the blind who occupy a particular liminal space within modern Chinese society.
Lou begins with a voiceover and fractured vision of our most prominent protagonist, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), as he emerges from a childhood accident which killed his mother and cost him his sight. Though he is assured that his condition is only temporary and his eyes will eventually be healed, Xiao Ma later attempts suicide when he comes to understand that his doctors have been deceiving him and his sight will never return. Surviving, he learns to accept his blindness and attends a special school for those with disabilities where he learns to read braille and is trained as a masseuse – a traditional occupation for the blind in Chinese society. Once qualified he gets a job at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center which is staffed exclusively by those with visual impairments who live together on site and exist as a small and exclusive community.
The trouble begins when the two partners, Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and Zhong Zongqi (Wang Zhihua), invite an old colleague, Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), to join them. Wang brings with him his fiancée, Xiao Kong (Zhang Lei), with whom the young Xiao Ma eventually develops a fascination. Meanwhile, Fuming has also developed a fascination for another newcomer, Du Hong (Mei Ting), who, he has been told, is very “beautiful”. Du Hong, in turn, is attracted to the morose figure of Xiao Ma but perhaps understands that for one reason or another he is unable to “see” her (which might be one of the reasons she continues to pine for him).
As in his previous films, Lou centres himself in a question of haptic connection. The residents of the clinic feel themselves cut off from what they see as “mainstream society” which they believe belongs exclusively to the sighted. Mainstream society, unadaptable and perhaps unwelcoming, has seen fit to exile them to the extent that they are unable to survive outside of the specific career track it has laid down for them and without the support of their own community. Yet their occupation also depends on deep sensory perception on a level deemed inaccessible to the fully sighted and the ability to “see” the things which can’t be “seen”.
Fuming, outgoing and sociable, looks for outlets outside of his own community but is criticised by those within who worry that he is in someway attempting to deny his blindness by adhering to the conceptual world of the sighted which he is otherwise unable to comprehend on a sensory level. His “love” for Du Hong is rooted in ideas of “conventional” beauty which is, in fact, more an expression of his vanity as he longs to possess the “best” girl as Du Hong points out when she reminds him that he has no idea whether she is “beautiful” or not or even what visual “beauty” might be, and that in becoming obsessed with these incomprehensible ideas he has in fact missed all of the things which might be “beautiful” about her on another level than the visual.
Meanwhile, another resident at the clinic has become worried about Xiao Ma’s fixation on Kong and decided the best way to sort him out is to take him to a brothel (ironically, also a kind of “massage parlour”). Though originally reluctant Xiao Ma begins to develop a relationship with sex worker Mann (Huang Lu) which is forged through touch but occurs on a deeper level. A fight with one of Mann’s other clients has the ironic effect of restoring some of his vision, leaving him stumbling and confused but also excited and drunk on a kind of sensory euphoria as he tries to reconcile his differing kinds of perception to make his way home. Yet by this point in his life Xiao Ma’s entire identity and existence revolves around being a blind person – he cannot tell anyone at the clinic that his vision has begun to return for fear of losing his place in their community as well as his ability to support himself.
Eventually the community of the clinic becomes scattered as its residents begin to reassert themselves as individuals re-entering “mainstream society”. Casting visually impaired actors alongside familiar faces, Lou treats his subject with the utmost respect and demonstrates that many of the problems faced by those at the clinic are exactly the same as those faced by the protagonists of his previous films while also reflecting the various ways that society remains intolerant to those who have differing needs. Asking quite profound questions about the nature of “beauty” and “connection” when images have been absented from the frame Lou attempts to “visualise” what it might feel like to “see” without “seeing” in an exploration of defiant hidden realities which often go wilfully unseen in our own blinkered perceptions.
Original trailer (English subtitles)