For sightless performers, it takes a special kind of trust to go before the camera, knowing that they won’t be able to see the results. Chinese director Lou Ye’s recent film, set in a massage center staffed by the blind, implicitly explores this process, as well as love, frustration, and everyday life for the workers. In a number of scenes, the images are even blurred or dimmed in a deliberate attempt to imagine how the blind perceive the world.

It all takes place in the city of Nanjing, where Lou shot Spring Fever (09) during his five-year ban from filmmaking by the film bureau of China’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), and where that film eventually had its China premiere at the 6th China Independent Film Festival. Since then, Lou has enjoyed a relatively smooth and prolific period of his career, completing three films since 2011. As a pioneer of France-China art-house co-productions, he is a regular recipient of grants and production funding from the National Center of Cinema and the Moving Image (CNC) in France, an influential force in China through its support of emergent and established “independent” filmmakers.

Commercially speaking, it’s a good time to be a fictional filmmaker in China today, though the avant-garde ranks of the last generation of the collectively trained Beijing Film Academy graduates who tasted celluloid filmmaking in the Nineties have been overtaken by more polyphonic and vernacular documentarians, video-makers, and independent festival programmers. Yet Lou’s Suzhou River (00)  and Summer Palace (06) still can’t be shown publicly in China.

FILM COMMENT interviewed Lou Ye about how to visualize the experience of the blind, the prospect of political and commercial censorship, and the explosive domestic box office in China. Blind Massage screens on June 30 and July 2 at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Blind Massage

This is your second film shot in Nanjing, though you were born and raised in a family of intellectuals in Shanghai.

Nanjing gives me the impression that it’s more ordinary than Shanghai, but the same as Shanghai. There’s something in there, something deep, that’s invisible but very attractive, which does not change with time.

Did you do any research about the relationship between the blind and cinema? It could be a hypnotic experience for a masseuse to sit in a cinema space.

Yes. For example, I tried to listen to a film in a cinema for the blind like the blind do. This is a film about without sight, so it added various restrictions to many visual aspects. But the film is made for people to see, therefore since the very beginning, we’ve been working within a paradox.

What was the filmmaking like, in terms of visualizing the experience of the blind? Everybody except the nonprofessional blind actors and actresses are in fact able to see…

Actually, I asked the professional actors with sight to be sightless during the shooting. They wore opaque contact lens that rendered them nearly unable to see, and they needed the assistant directors to guide them to their marks during the shooting (for example, Qin Hao who plays Sha Fuming and Huang Xuan who plays Xiao Ma). This is the same as the other blind actors/actresses. Or they closed their eyes (such as Guo Xiaodong who plays Doc Wang) and gave themselves completely to their sense of touch and to the help from the blind actors/actresses around during the blocking and shooting.

And of course, with the participation of the blind actors and actresses, our shooting went beyond the daily routine of a common production. For example, for each set or each location, before the shooting day, there had to be two or three days for all the blind actors and actresses to get familiar with the space and touch all the props on the set under the guidance of a specialized AD for the blind—cups, tables, and chairs. Then we’d be ready to shoot. No grip track nor lighting cable was allowed to run across the set to avoid possible stumbles. Once a prop was in place, it could not be moved or else the blind actors and actress wouldn’t be able to reach it working from their memory. Trying to visualize the experience of being unable to see, with the visually handicapped, was already very exciting itself.

Blind Massage

From the beginning, the film doesn’t intend to be funny or entertaining, and this dramatic mood is amplified by the ambient sound scored by Johan Johansson. But my impression of the novel is that it begins with quite a few ironic jokes.  

I prefer to tell you directly what has happened. And I think making this sightless film itself is ironic. On this point, it’s similar to the novel. And the music is also very simple and straightforward.

It’s possible to interpret your use of the sightless as a metaphor for your own relationship to the mainstream world.

To me, the world of the sightless is broader and greater than a metaphor…

Blind Massage

Zeng Jian, the cinematographer of Blind Massage, has collaborated with you since Spring Fever. It feels like most of your collaborators come from an independent film background.

Actually, my collaboration with Zeng Jian dates back much earlier. He was the still photographer of Purple Butterfly [03], the editor of Summer Palace [06], and then the cinematographer of Spring Fever [09]. He knows my films very well. Some of my collaborators are from independent film backgrounds, some are not, and they’re all very excellent.

Does the exploding box office in China frustrate you or your production company? Or even lure some of your staff to more commercial filmmaking?

There’s definitely some influence, because everyone is talking about box office with you. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the Chinese film industry in its early phase. As for my staff, on the contrary, many of them do come from the world of commercial filmmaking. On this point, independent filmmaking is kind of the same as a blind massage center, where people getting tired from making money can take a break.

Do you want to talk about censorship? How did it go this time? Any interesting stories to share?

I don’t want to talk about censorship. This time had nothing different from the previous experience. In general, no matter how the directors here appear to be relaxed, in the face of the censorship, there’s no interesting story, and there won’t be any.

Blind Massage screens on June 30 and July 2 at the New York Asian Film Festival.