Director: Ye Tang
Running time: 6mins
Passing judgement on films from China – or other parts of the world where an overbearing state necessitates a vaguer, more metaphorical visual language to get past censors – is always going to be tricky. As certain customs and sensibilities will inevitably go over the head of someone without first-hand knowledge of that society, there is the possibility that certain things Western viewers feel is going unsaid were simply lost in translation.
Perhaps this is the territory Walker finds itself in. Director Ye Tang’s short documentary seems to leave a lot to be desired, in terms of informing its audience on much of anything – let alone the apparently neglected section of society it professes to be about.
Filmed in almost complete silence, the camera follows a masseuse in a moodily lit parlour, as she attempts to unknot the spine of a motionless client. All we hear is the occasional cracking of knuckles, the slither of skin on skin, and the clink of glass when a number of heated cups are stuck to the customer’s back. Well, almost. There is also an overbearing piano score, which manages to suck much of the atmosphere out of the room, and make viewers feel like they are being emotionally steered on how to feel about the scene… though it is not entirely clear which direction we are being manipulated in.
That is because beyond the description I have supplied, there is nothing else. No narration, no text, no talking heads, no interaction between practitioner and patient. We are flying blind here; and while it might be argued that is appropriate for a film that the director’s description says is about “blind masseurs” in China, it makes the film’s classification as a documentary a bit of a sticking point.
The full blurb supplied to Indy Film Library reads:
Most professions work in the sun, a skill of their own or a handed down craft, but blind masseurs are different. They could have had a normal life but have lost their original jobs due to eye diseases caused by congenital or acquired accidents, and are rejected by other jobs and have to learn massage, becoming a massage technician is their only way to survive.
That is all very well; but the film doesn’t come close to delivering on any of that.
Of course, it is not written in stone that a documentary needs a narration, or even a coherent story running through it. But when trying to help an audience identify with people and a way of life unfamiliar to them, it is probably advisable that you at least give your subjects a chance to speak about their first-hand experiences – and help others see the world from their point of view.
The absence of this, combined with my own lack of knowledge on the subject, meant that I had no frame of reference to get any meaning out of Walker. And considering it is supposed to be educating me about a group of marginalised people, struggling to survive on the periphery of society, that is a real shame.
It only becomes more of a shame when you consider how technically accomplished the film is. Overbearing, emotive soundtrack aside, the cinematography is excellent. The framing of shots of the intimate, skilled work the masseuse is undertaking are exactly what we need to understand the process. These are balanced with some wonderfully lit wider shots, where the figure almost becomes a shadow-puppet, dancing across a glowing canvas.
But it is never remotely clear that our subject cannot see. It is not apparent what difficulties she faces on a daily basis. No attempts are made to convey her fears, or her dreams. So, much like a shadow-puppet, she never comes across as three-dimensional. That is true of the wider film, too, which in spite of its best intentions falls flat.
This is not necessarily a bad film. Walker looks like a million dollars. It does a good job of at least showing us the process of a masseuse – whether or not we know she is blind – and the director’s heart is in the right place in trying to tell her story. But as a documentary, this does not work. I am no better informed on the subject having sat through the film. The only way I could see the project meeting its described goals is if it were screened in a Cinema Militante style – where its creator interrupts screenings to discuss details with the audience, away from the pressures of police and censors. But I can only rate the film in front of me.