People Mountain, People Sea (Ren Shan Ren Hai) is a neorealistic crime drama from director Cai Shangjun part of the Contemporary World Cinema program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Situated in the remote countryside of the southern province of Guizhou in present day China, a labourer named Old Iron (Chen Jianbin) works to pay off his debts. He is hampered by a large settlement he has to pay for someone being injured on a job site that he was rock mining on. Tragedy hits his family further when his brother is brutally murdered in a highway robbery. When the police are unable or unwilling to do an intensive search to find the killer, Old Iron takes it upon himself to search for the killer and travels to slums of the city. There he meets up with a friend who has become a drug addict that does more to complicate his search than to find the killer.
The murder in People Mountain, People Sea serves as a backdrop to what the film is really about: examining the underbelly of modern China. The film is very much a social commentary wrapped in a crime drama. Through Old Iron’s journey, we see poverty and drug use in the big cities, and witness police officials extorting bribes. Most of all, the film looks at the terrible working conditions of China’s new lower class, especially in the illegal mining industry, in which workers are more on the level of slaves than employees. The film also looks at the fusion of both old and new technologies. One moment Old Iron is using a cell phone and the next he is cooking on a stove that looks 200 years old, the suggestion being that new technology has reached rural China, but not necessarily in harmony “” much like the new market economy that has transformed China in the past 20 years.
For a road movie and a hunt for a killer, it is extremely understated in its approach. The lead character barely speaks more than a few lines in the entire film and generally keeps his head down, never showing emotion on screen. Old Iron’s motivations are unclear: does he want the reward for capturing his brother’s killer or revenge for the act itself. These ambiguous motivations continue right to the end of the film.
The filmmaking style matches the performances in its use of understatement. Director Cai Shangjun (The Red Awn) was clearly influenced by the great YasujirÅ Ozu and Michelangelo Antonioni in this film’s use of selective, but deliberate camera movements. In many sequences, the camera stays stationary while the action of the scene moves throughout the frame (sometimes out of frame), even during key actions in the film. In these moments, the sound design becomes essential for the audience to know what is happening and the delicate framing of the shot becomes apparent many minutes into the scene. Rather than dulling the action, it makes the action scenes more violent and realistic because the viewer is trapped in the shot. In addition, the film has an extremely minimal score, leaving a blank aural canvass for sound designer Yang Jiang to fill the screen with detailed sounds from everyday life.
Most of director’s Cai Shangjun credits are for screenwriting and this is only his second directorial effort, but he has the confidence of a master and he is a filmmaker to watch out for. People Mountain, People Sea isn’t a film for everybody, but if you are interested in excellent contemporary Chinese Neorealistic filmmaking, then this film is for you.