Chinese director Lou Ye, who has faced repeated bans by the authorities, premiered his latest work at the Berlin film festival Monday with a cast made up in part of blind amateur actors.
"Blind Massage", a Chinese-French production, is based on a wildly popular Chinese novel by Bi Feiyu and set in the southern city of Nanjing.
It is one of three movies from mainland China in competition at the Berlinale, the first major European film festival of the year.
"Blind Massage" tells the story of visually impaired people who, facing poverty and ostracism, find work as massage therapists using traditional techniques from Chinese medicine.
The low-budget picture includes a cast of both sighted and blind actors, several of whom joined Lou in the German capital for the red-carpet premiere.
The blind see themselves as outsiders to mainstream society, a narrator explains in a voice-over, and their own community is divided between those who had the ability to see and gradually lost it, and those born without sight.
The issue becomes key as the masseurs live in close quarters and relationships begin to form, with the question of who is beautiful becoming a matter of huge curiosity even as they spend their lives in the dark.
The sighted customers compliment a stunning massage therapist, with one observing: "You're prettier than stewed pork." And a blind colleague asks to touch her face so he can experience her beauty using a sense other than vision.
Another character, who falls for a blind woman and is rebuffed, is taken to a brothel in the city centre where he becomes infatuated with a prostitute.
But their dynamic shifts dramatically when his sight begins to return.
Corrupt officials, loan sharks and callous family members who abandon their blind kin also get an airing in the picture, which drew polite applause.
Few opportunities for the blind
The Shanghai-born Lou was faced with his first official ban in 2000 when he entered the competition at the Rotterdam film festival without the permission of the Chinese authorities.
He has competed twice at the Cannes film festival, in 2009 with "Spring Fever" which was shot in secret, and in 2003 with "Purple Butterfly" which depicted the 1930s conflict between China and Japan and starred Zhang Ziyi.
His 2006 picture "Summer Palace" depicted the crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, earning him a five-year film-making ban.
He described the work on "Blind Massage" as "very, very difficult" but said the camaraderie of the cast and crew of lay people and professionals helped the process.
"Everybody works together in this massage centre and that is the model we copied into the movie," he told reporters.
Zhang Lei, a blind woman acting in her first movie, called the experience "really marvellous".
"For us blind people there are very few opportunities like this so it was very special," she said.
"We acted like ourselves, we didn't feel like we were making a movie. It was more or less our own life."
Another of the blind stars, Mu Huaipeng, said he had brought his own experience working for 20 years in a massage studio to the role.
"So now to show everybody blind massage as an actor and learn about moviemaking was a great opportunity," he said.
Sighted actor Guo Xiaodong said he spent weeks living among the blind to prepare for the role, even wearing a blindfold to understand their day-to-day lives.
"Your mood changes, your world changes and also how the world treats you," he said.
"Blind Massage" is one of 20 films in competition for Berlin's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded on Saturday.