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People Moutain People Sea:A Simple Revenge Story with Apocalyptic Ambitions

2012-06-21 09:37:13        Chinese Films

Derek Elley.

Derek ELLEY is Chief Film Critic of Film Bussiness Asia. Elley has been writing about East Asian cinema for almost 40 years,especially Chinese-language films,and has arranged numerous seasons and tributes both in the UK, at London's National Film Theatre,and elsewhere, at Washington's American Film Institute. In 1998 he co-founded the Far East Film Festival, in Udine, Italy, devoted to mainstream Asian cinema.

Based on a true story, in which the brothers of a murder victim decided to track down the killer themselves, PEOPLE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE SEA is a simple revenge story with apocalyptic ambitions. In writer-director Cai Shangjun's version, it's a penniless elder brother who takes the law into his own hands, setting out on a thousand-mile journey from a village in Guizhou province, up to the huge metropolis of Chongqing, and back again on a seemingly hopeless one-man quest.

The movie is a big leap forward for Cai from his debut, THE RED AWN, a father-and-son drama that was low on character conflict but compensated with striking photography of summery cornfields in Gansu province and Yao Anlian's touching performance as the widower who returns to his village after being registered as dead by his teenage son. PEOPLE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE SEA has a similar character, called Tie, who's returned after a long spell away in the big city, but he's a far less likeable figure than the widower in THE RED AWN and way more taciturn. In fact, the short-on-words Tie sets the tone for the whole film, whose plot, though simple, is still difficult to piece together from the few scraps of information provided and the large lacunae in the narrative.

Tie's physical journeying is only briefly shown. Instead, this is existential cinema of the baldest kind, and in some respects too big a leap forward by Cai. Though never boring or draggy, and with an admirably tight running time, it's mystifyingly elliptical for no good reason and too often forgets its audience.

Performances, mostly in thick local dialect, are very much at the service of the film, with actress Tao Hong almost unrecognisable in a small role as Tie's onetime wife, and character actor Chen Jianbin suitably gruff and monosyllabic as Tie. Though with a different technical crew from The Red Awn, the movie is equally well-appointed.


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