To get rich is glorious, the Chinese government discovered soon after Mao checked out, but most of that country’s workers have no hope of entering the booming new economy. In the coal-mining regions of the north, labor remains cheap—and life isn’t worth much more. An estimated 7,000 Chinese miners die every year, a horror the protagonists of Blind Shaft turn to their advantage: Song (Li Yixiang) and Tang (Wang Shuangbao) enlist a guy in some impromptu small-town labor market, tell him he’ll have to pose as one of their relatives to get a job in a mine, and then kill him in a staged cave-in. Rather than invite an investigation, the mine owner pays 25,000 or even 30,000 yuan in “compensation” so the aggrieved family will just forget the whole thing and go away. Song and Tang have left dead co-workers all over northwest China, and they’ve earned a lot more money than they would have through honest labor.

Indeed, honest labor doesn’t seem to exist in Li Yang’s debut feature, a crisp film noir with a heart almost as black as coal dust. The credits have barely finished when Song and Tang finish their first transaction, heading to town with 28,000 yuan and the ashes of Tang’s “brother,” which they promptly flush down the toilet. The dead man may have been an innocent victim, but the mine manager and his cronies certainly aren’t: When the two scam artists won’t settle for 25 grand, the boss’s assistant suggests that they just kill them. The idea is rejected only because the bribes to the local cops would cost more than the payoff.

Blind Shaft is today’s China—and today’s Chinese cinema. The brilliant hues and elegant tracking shots of late-’80s and early-’90s Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige films have been replaced by grimy contemporary locations and handheld camera. Aside from the incongruous colors of modern consumer products, the world of such directors as Li and his contemporaries is composed of cold blues and grays and dry browns and tans. Like Jia Zhangke’s recent Unknown Pleasures, Blind Shaft depicts a country in awkward transition, where everything that was inviolable a decade ago is now obsolete. To celebrate their latest score, Song and Tang clean up and head to a karaoke bar, where the only song they know is “Long Live Socialism.” The cynical young hookers laugh at the antiquated sentiments, then teach the men fresh lyrics that parody the old ones.

Sated by grubby sex and a breakfast of noodles, the two con men pick their next victim, earnest teenager Yuan Fengming (Wang Baoqiang). Yuan, who hopes to earn enough money to go back to high school, is so guileless that Song doesn’t want to take him. After they get to the mine, Song delays the murder, arguing that they can’t kill the youth before he loses his virginity. The subsequent trip to the whorehouse proves traumatic for Yuan, however, and he rushes into the street and stops in front of the Chinese character for “affection.” The deed is done, but the dispute between Song and Tang suggests that the end of their partnership may be near.

Trained as a documentary maker, Li shares Jia’s affinity for precise detail and actual locations (some filmed with hidden camera, as in The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang’s first movie to forgo period-film opulence). Unlike Unknown Pleasures, however, Blind Shaft isn’t a rambling mood piece. Adapted by Li from Liu Qingbang’s novel Sacred Wood, this is a taut, plot-driven yarn with a final twist worthy of a ’30s Hollywood B-picture. Starker and bleaker than any recent American film about killer capitalism, Blind Shaft depicts Wal-Mart’s biggest trading partner as a nation governed only by money, power, and deceit. In Li’s mesmerizingly grim vision, empathy is a fatal weakness, and a boy’s best friend is someone else’s bad luck.

“It must be fun to live in Paris,” remarks Momo while strolling through the city with his new friend, Ibrahim. Because the not-yet-16 Momo and the 70-something Ibrahim live across from each other on the Rue Bleue, the boy’s comment doesn’t make literal sense. But the Jewish teenager exists in a tightly circumscribed world, defined by his brooding, querulous father and the ghosts of his never-seen older brother and runaway mother, neither of whom Momo really remembers. He is only beginning to discover other people, driven by those perennial motivators, sex and money.

In Monsieur Ibrahim’s opening sequence, Momo (Pierre Boulanger) practices appearing older and smoother than he is. He then smashes his piggy bank to get the money for his first trip to Sylvie (Anne Suarez), one of the young prostitutes who work his street. It’s shopkeeper Ibrahim (Omar Sharif) who converts the coins to bills. Soon enough, he’s teaching Momo how to skimp on the household food budget by feeding Dad (Gilbert Melki) cat food and calling it pâté. It’s not clear why the shopkeeper begins to cultivate Momo—or to make such unsavory menu suggestions—but the motivation doesn’t seem to be malice. Like François Dupeyron’s film, Ibrahim is gentle, humane, and passably wise, with just a bit of the trickster in him—a role into which the once-swashbuckling Sharif has mellowed impeccably. Momo may be the story’s center, but Boulanger plays him as the usual bundle of adolescent desire and despair, leaving Sharif as the heart of this cross-cultural bildungsroman.

Although he’s to known the neighbors as “the Arab,” Ibrahim explains that he’s actually Anatolian, as well as Sufi. Tolerant of Momo’s carnal explorations and not opposed to the occasional intoxicating beverage, Ibrahim embodies Islam at its most benignly avuncular. If set in these polarized times, the movie would probably offer its title character as an endearing counterpoint to France’s growing uneasiness about its Muslim population. But Monsieur Ibrahim transpires in the early ’60s, when apparently everyone in the city except Momo’s father was riding a New Wave.

As Dupeyron recalls the period, it was a time when enchantment transformed ordinary Parisians, from the Rue Bleue’s hookers to the kids along the canal doing the latest dance. (It is, of course, the Madison, best known to film buffs for its role in Godard’s Band of Outsiders.) One fine day, a film crew sets up on the street and a blond goddess—modeled on Brigitte Bardot and played by the no-less-mythic Isabelle Adjani—enters Ibrahim’s store to buy a bottle of water. With his impeccable sense of cosmic equity, Ibrahim overcharges her.

In the movie’s third act, Ibrahim decides to return to his hometown and take Momo along. The shopkeeper cashes in his savings and buys a red convertible that he then admits he doesn’t know how to drive. A few lessons and a quick road-trip montage later, the pair arrive in Turkey, where Ibrahim introduces the boy as his son and a different kind of magic prevails. They’re doing the Madison here, too, it turns out, but Momo also sees whirling dervishes. The punch line of this episode is a little glib, but the journey expands the lessons Ibrahim began to teach Momo when they were in Paris: that the world is diverse, beautiful, and unpredictable.

Scripted by Dupeyron from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel and play Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, the film is sweet but not cloying. Although the eclectic soundtrack includes several tunes that weren’t actually available at the time—including the theme song, “Why Can’t We Live Together,” a 1972 Timmy Thomas hit—the director believably conjures the period, spinning his handheld camera through the 9th arrondissement and beyond. While Richard Anthony sings “Nouvelle Vague,” Dupeyron manages to conjure a breathless sense of possibility. Could the same spell be cast today? Monsieur Ibrahim doesn’t try to make that case, but its amiable namesake would surely say it could. CP