People Mountain People Sea is a film that has almost vanished without a trace from the recent history of Chinese cinema, a fate that has had as much to do with bad luck as official interference. Although it was selected for the main competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in the secret slot, this China/Hong Kong co-production had not received approval from the mainland film bureau and was therefore smuggled out of the People’s Republic to screen for the assembled press representatives and jury members. Unfortunately, the considerable risk taken by director Cai Shangjun only resulted in a muted response, one that may have been further compounded by technical problems that reportedly led to one screening being cancelled while another was interrupted as a result sound problems. Cai was awarded the Best Director prize for his efforts, but received few offers for international distribution, probably because this is such a tough film to pigeonhole.
Ostensibly a revenge thriller concerning a labourer tracking down his brother’s killer, People Mountain People Sea builds steadily towards expected genre beats that it consciously avoids hitting in favor of providing a commentary on the plight of China’s lower-class mass. The title is an old expression meaning a lot of people in a crowded place: Cai traverses rural and urban terrain, finding hardship at every turn, but also honoring the steely determination of those who live below the poverty line.
Lao Tie (a taciturn Chen Jianbin) is first seen in a quarry in the southwestern province of Guizhou where he is working to pay-off the heavy 80,000RMB fine that he has incurred disabling a fellow worker through negligence on the job. However, a family matter takes priority when the local police inform him that his brother has been stabbed to death after giving a stranger a lift on his motorcycle. The suspect is ex-convict Xiao Qiang (Wu Xibo), and Lao seeks vengeance, initially visiting the murderer’s home in a nearby village, only to find Xiao’s mother who offers Lao a meal and informs him that her son will not return home because he is a coward. Lao’s subsequent quest undermined by a lack of planning: he heads to Chongqing and enlists the assistance of his old friend Bao (Li Hucheng), but ends up losing his money when he gets involved in a drug deal, then visits his former partner Tian Xin (Tao Hong) and takes advantage of her new husband being away by forcing himself on her. It is not until he returns home that Lao obtains a reliable lead concerning Xiao’s whereabouts. After a policeman tells him that Xiao has been sighted at a coal mine in the north, Lao seeks to settle the score once and for all by taking a job at the site in order to get close to his target.
Cai is pursuing hard reality as much as Lao is chasing Xiao with this conventional revenge narrative taking on an ethnographic dimension. Early scenes show Lao eking out an existence in a province that remains largely undeveloped, while his stay in Chongqing involves searching for Xiao in a shantytown labyrinth where the inhabitants exist in cramped rooms as they eat, rest or play video games as a means of escapism. Cai shoots each scene in long takes that allow him to observe behavior and environment, simultaneously building tension as potential confrontations play out as staring contests between the unblinking, largely silent Lao and those who may be withholding vital information. Lao is not a particularly effective investigator – his strategy is to wander around run-down areas and show a photograph of Xiao to anyone who will take a look at it – and this slight aspect of naivety in his personality offsets his unpleasant brutish streak. Working from the true story of how the brothers of a murder victim tracked down the killer themselves when they decided that the police were not up to the task, Cai keeps two-thirds of this haphazard procedural grounded in a commitment to capturing life on the margins.
Yet events take a near-surrealistic turn in its final act as Lao descends into the mine and finds an underground society that is even more worn-down than the similarly low-paid workers who toil away above. Most of the miners are on the run, with their long hours in the shafts constituting a form of self-imposed exile. Although he is there for a more noble reason, Lao fits right in. What transpires here is less than reliably conveyed, as the rage that has been eating away at its central protagonist comes to the fore. Interactions play out to a genuinely haunting industrial soundscape, leading to an elliptical conclusion that, while an admirably brave choice by Cai, ends the film in a rather vague manner.
The film’s structure makes it a triptych of sorts that goes from the ravaged beauty of the mountains to the filthy depths of the city to the bowels of the hellish mine, with each environment being superbly photographed by Dong Jinsong. For all the unfairness on display, it’s not an entirely cynical vision as rural life is still seen to evidence the social values that have eroded in the city, where Lao’s bank account is cleaned out due to small-time police corruption. Even the mine’s workers have developed a sense of justice after ruminating on their sins throughout hours of backbreaking labor.
While the opaque tendencies that infuriated critics during its brief festival showcase ensure that People Mountain People Sea is more likely to remain a fascinating curio than it is to be touted as a lost classic, it is never less than compelling and certainly deserves a much wider audience than it has received to date.