"The Shaft": Neo-Realism Rethought By Swapan Kumar Ghosh

in 43rd Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Swapan Ghosh

I always go for the kind of intimate films especially when they explore the interior psychological states of individuals seen through the camera’s eye. My intimate journey into the arena of intimate films once again brought me this year to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Among the competitive entries, my favourite was the Chinese entry The Shaft (Dixia de Tiankong), a first feature by Zhang Chi.

It has three neatly-woven inter-related stories focusing deeply on individuals living in a mining town in western China. One episode follows the next, though they do not simply trace the continual development of a single family. In the first part, a daughter of the family works in the mine office, having an affair with a factory worker. But she has a greater ambition, a thirst for a better life. The girl stands between reality and dreams, while director Zang Chi traces the socio-economic back-drop in the context of modern-day China. And also, to what extent are morals and values important in this society, without criticising the given situation. All the issues in this film develop quietly.

In the second part we see the girl’s younger brother, who does not want to work in the mines, dreaming of going to Beijing to build his career in the field of information technology. This aspirant, a drop-out from school, dependent on his fathers hard earned money, falls into a trap to grab some easy money, a situation which sends him to jail. After coming back, we see him working in the mines. Zhang has not portrayed this boy as a small town hero nor has he glorified his return to the mines. It is a sort of journey which takes the viewers into his inner-self to feel the silent struggle the boy is going through.

In the third episode, the head of this family retires. Now his daughter and son have planned to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday. The family reunion takes place. Nothing whatsoever seems to happen, yet little clues are constantly being planted that continue to build throughout the film. The head of the family now steps into an eternal journey to find his beloved wife, who had disappeared from his life some twenty years back. Finally it becomes a celebration of an ordinary life. Director Zang’s weaving of the screenplay is extraordinary and it depicts, in a symbolic way, the lives of the family bound together. The silent expressions of the characters and the smooth camera movement over the day-to-day life of this small mining town not only forms the chemistry of an intimate film, but one can also see how neo-realism has been rethought.