(L-R) Actors Zhang Lei, Huang Xuan and Mu Huaipeng
Beijing - AFP
"Blind Massage", the award-winning new film by the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema Lou Ye, throws a rare spotlight on those who cannot see for themselves in a country where the disabled are often marginalised.
Lou has previous tackled a slew of forbidden subjects, including gay sex and the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and his latest work goes on general release in China on Friday.
Based on Bi Feiyu's wildly popular novel "Massage", the low-budget feature tells the story of a small blind community working in a therapeutic massage parlour in the eastern city of Nanjing.
In China, home to some 85 million disabled people according to state media, the stigma surrounding disability is marked. Schools often deny admission to disabled pupils, contributing to an estimated 40 percent illiteracy rate in the community.
For the 17 million blind, massage offers an escape from poverty and ostracism, and several hundred thousand work in salons and parlours across the country.
"It was a taboo subject -- but not any more, it seems to me," Lou told AFP at his film's premiere in Beijing this week.
Even so, he still had to contend with China's state censors, who have repeatedly banned his previous works.
"We managed to get it through after four or five months of discussions," he said.
"The version that the (Chinese) audience will see is a bit different from the original. We had to take out the most sexual and violent images. I can understand why we had to do that, because Chinese cinema doesn't have an age classification system," he added carefully.
- Outside main society -
Starring both sighted and unsighted actors, "Blind Massage" explores the lives and loves of the masseurs, with some scenes deliberately blurred to give the viewer a sense of having poor vision.
Desperation is never far from their lives, and some parts of the film -- including mutilations -- are undoubtedly shocking.
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 question of who is beautiful becomes a matter of huge curiosity even as they spend their lives in the dark. One character is taken to a brothel 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.
It has echoes in the life of Fu Chiyou, who expertly pummels his customers' feet while perched on a tiny stool in a Beijing hairdressing salon.
The 38-year-old was born blind into a family of farmers in Heilongjiang, China's northernmost province.
Forced into a relatively solitary existence because of his disability, he spent his childhood and adolescence in the company of just his family and two friends. Few blind manage to marry or secure stable employment, he says.
"I never had anything to do, and my parents worried about my future," Fu told AFP. "So I thought of going to a massage school for the blind."
It took Fu five years to perfect the art of massage under the traditional principles of Chinese medicine, learning the secrets of the human form and its pressure points.
"The blind have a more developed sense of hearing, as well as a more developed sense of touch," he said.
He works from 3:00 pm until midnight every day, with the salon owner providing his lodgings as well as his modest salary.
- Behind closed doors -
Lou, a Shanghai native, has faced repeated bans on his work in China and is used to having to screen it behind closed doors.
He was banned from directing for five years after making "Summer Palace" (2006), which depicts relationships against a backdrop of the Tiananmen protests and has never been released in China.
His other films include "Spring Fever" (2009), which portrays a clandestine gay affair and was shot in secret in defiance of his film-making ban.
But the Beijing premiere for "Blind Massage" was packed after the film scooped top honours at the weekend's Golden Horse film awards in Taiwan, touted as the Chinese-language Oscars.
It also fared well at the Berlin film festival earlier this year, winning the Silver Bear prize for Outstanding Artistic Contribution.
Fu will never see the movie, but is very much aware of it.
"For the first time there's a film that talks about our lives," he said as he dug his thumb into the sole of a customer's foot.
"That can only be a good thing."