Blind Massage, the award-winning latest film by the enfant terrible of Chinese cinema Lou Ye that was released on the mainland last week, throws a rare spotlight on those without sight in a country where the disabled are often marginalised.
Based on Bi Feiyu's popular novel Massage, the drama tells the story of a small blind community working in a therapeutic massage parlour in Nanjing.
In China, home to 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 per cent illiteracy rate in the community. For the 17 million blind, massage offers an escape from poverty and ostracism, and hundreds of thousands of them work in salons and parlours.
"It was a taboo subject - but not any more, it seems to me," Lou said at his film's premiere in Beijing last week. He still had to contend with the state censors, who had repeatedly banned his works, including those that tackled forbidden subjects, such as gay sex and the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
But "we managed to get it through after four or five months of discussions", the "Sixth Generation" filmmaker says. "The version the [mainland] 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 mainland cinema doesn't have an age classification system."
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 shocking.
The blind see themselves as outsiders to mainstream society, a narrator explains in a voice-over, and even their community is divided between those who had the ability to see and gradually lost it and those born without sight.
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 family members who abandon their blind kin also get an airing.
The film, which screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April, 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 farming family in Heilongjiang 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.
"I never had anything to do, and my parents worried about my future," Fu says. "So I thought of going to a massage school for the blind."
It took him 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 says.
He works from 3pm until midnight every day, with the salon owner providing his lodgings as well as his modest salary.
Lou, a Shanghai native, has faced repeated bans on his work. He was banned from directing for five years after making Summer Palace (2006), which depicts relationships against a backdrop of the Tiananmen protests; the film has never been released on the mainland. His other works include Spring Fever (2009), which portrays a clandestine gay affair and was shot in secret in defiance of his ban.
But the Beijing premiere for Blind Massage was packed after the film scooped six prizes - including for best feature film and best cinematography - at the Golden Horse film awards in Taiwan on November 23.
It also fared well at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere earlier this year, winning the Silver Bear prize for outstanding artistic contribution.
Fu will never see the movie, but is aware of it. "For the first time there's a film that talks about our lives," he says as he digs his thumb into the sole of a customer's foot. "That can only be a good thing."