People Mountain People Sea: Venice Film Review

A fascinating insider’s trip through rural China falls apart in the final scenes.

Chen Jianbin, Tao Hong and Wu Xiubo star in director Cai Shangjun's film about an insider's trip through rural China.

A mythic revenge quest in which the result is less important than the journey itself, Venice’s surprise competition entry People Mountain People Sea is a Chinese puzzle whose sophisticated filmmaking fascinates, even while the perversely indecipherable ending is a great narrative disappointment. Following his prizewinning 2007 debut The Red Awn, writer-director Cai Shangjun’s second feature crisscrosses southwest China from one amazing location to another until the narrative simply implodes in the final key scenes, severely limiting the appeal of this intriguing work beyond the tolerant curiosity of festival audiences.

Even the title is abstruse. People Mountain People Sea is a Chinese expression that refers to a magnificent sea of people, perhaps pointing to a sweeping ambition to say something about the country’s teeming poor and disenfranchised.  

The hero Lao Tie is introduced hacking away in a stone quarry in a sparsely inhabited mountain village. Following an accident, he’s held responsible for a fellow worker’s injury and ordered to pay an enormous compensation. But when he learns his young brother has been wantonly murdered, he chucks financial duty and sets out to find the murderer. The rest of the film recounts his seemingly impossible quest to track down his man, whom the police have identified as an ex-con named Xiao Qiangbut who has slipped through their fingers.

As silent and deadly determined as the Charles Bronson of Death Wish, whom pro actor Chen Jianbin vaguely resembles, Lao Tie starts with a visit to Xiao Qiang’s primitive mountain village. He shares a meal with the murderer’s old mother. A cheap local magician reminds Lao Tie about fate and prophesizes that the manhunt will change his life forever.

His next stop is Chongqing, at 35 million inhabitants the most populated city in the world. The camera pans through a hellish labyrinth of poverty, an underground shantytown (also seen in Gianni Amelio’s The Missing Star) where the poor and destitute live in an infinite succession of adjoining rooms. Lao Tie and his pusher friend hunt down info about Xiao Qiang, until a run-in with a local gang and a corrupt policeman bankrupt the search.

At one point Lao Tie decides to see his ex-wife. The visit begins with him raping her; then she grudgingly lets him sleep in her coffee shop. Their small son has run off from a foster home, which triggers a restful moment as they take him back to the countryside. This wistfully sad scene, Cai Shangjun’s most delicately shot, is the prelude to hell however.

Following a rumor that Xiao Qiang is hiding in a coal mine, Lao Tie takes a job in the infernal black hole. What transpires during the chilling violence of the final scenes is anyone’s guess, and leaves the viewer feeling short-changed and disappointed.

Faulty story-telling aside, the film is a showcase for Cai Shangjun’s talent as a director with hair-trigger control over tone and mood. From city to countryside to village, from stone quarry to mine shaft, the detailed, suggestively lit sets convey strong emotions in lieu of words.

A spark of humanity and the tiniest trace of humor round out Chen Jianbin’s people’s hero.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (In competition)
Production company: Sunrise Media Corporation Limited
Cast: Chen Jianbin, Tao Hong, Wu Xiubo
Director: Cai Shangjun
Screenwriters: Gu Xiaobai, Cai Shangjun, Gu Zheng
Executive producers: Edmond Lo, Anita Wang, Niu Nan, Henry Heung, Han Deliri, Alan Cheung
Producer: Li Xudong
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Production designer: Zhai Tao, Jin Yang
Music: Zhou Jiaojiao
Costumes: Laurance Xu
Editor: Yang Hongyu
90 minutes