A pitch-black tale of murder, corruption and almost every other conceivable form of human injustice is taken to its bleakest possible conclusions in “People Mountain People Sea.” Set in motion by a man’s hunt for his brother’s killer, helmer Cai Shangjun’s slow-burning second feature employs a certain narrative vagueness as its protagonist betrays not a word of his increasingly dark motives. But the story’s threads, even if only partly grasped, come together in powerful fashion in this grim, formally impressive drama, which should put Cai on the map as it heads for fest outposts and select arthouses offshore.
The sense of a confident filmmaker at the helm is established almost immediately in the boldly assured widescreen lensing (by d.p. Dong Jinsong) and the calm, unblinking approach to scenes of matter-of-fact horror. What initially seems to be a ride shared by two friends on a motorcycle, winding their way down a mountain road somewhere in southwest China, becomes a chilling tableau that leaves one man dead while the other, Xiao Qiang (Wu Xiubo), rides off.
Undertaking the search for Xiao is the dead man’s older brother, Lao Tie (Chen Jianbin), as the police confirm the killer’s identity but hit an investigational dead end. For the taciturn, emotionless Lao, it’s merely the latest setback in his experience with China’s law enforcement and legal system. He’s recently returned home to his family’s mountain village after losing his city job, due to an accident caused by his own negligence; one of his many burdens is a large debt he owes the family of a disabled co-worker.
Partly out of obligation, and partly because of the reward money offered, Lao heads to Chongqing and looks for Xiao, only to run afoul of some local thugs and lose his money to a corrupt cop. Further fleshing out its protagonist’s backstory, the film abruptly introduces Lao’s ex-g.f. (Tao Hong), who’s raising his young son on her own; Lao rekindles the relationship by casually raping her, probably not for the first time.
All this is observed with the sort of measured, long-take detachment that will be familiar to regular viewers of international art cinema. Yet Cai ensures we’re always looking at something important; each frame adds another piece of narrative or psychological detail to this portrait of a man repeatedly pummeled by an alternately indifferent and predatory society. But Lao is more than willing to beat back, and in doing so he proves himself dangerously intelligent and observant; one of the film’s grim satisfactions lies in watching him carefully tuck away a piece of information to be exploited, often violently, further down the road.
While every scene grips in and of itself, the fact-based screenplay (by Cai, Gu Xiaobai and Gu Zheng) seems to have deliberately sliced away huge chunks of connective tissue, eliminating the exposition and buildup between scenes. Lao’s actions often seem inexplicable in the moment but make sense in retrospect, and it’s never clear where the story is headed, though the resulting disorientation has the effect of only heightening the viewer’s attention. The final passages, in which Lao takes a job at a coal mine where Xiao is rumored to have headed, signal a literal and moral descent that may remind viewers of Li Yang’s thriller “Blind Shaft,” though Cai’s film ends on a far more brutal, nihilistic note.
Never cracking a smile or saying much at all, Chen (“The Founding of a Republic,” “24 City”) is well cast as a man who invites neither identification nor sympathy, though an attentive viewer can just about follow his ever-more-devious thought processes. Pic often frames him against squalid Chongqing locations that convey a pervasive sense of despair and rot, offset somewhat by stunning landscape shots of mist-wreathed mountains and the Yangtze River.
“People Mountain People Sea” was unveiled as a surprise competition entry at the Venice Film Festival, filling a berth that has previously gone to such hard-hitting dispatches from China’s interior as Wang Bing’s “The Ditch” and Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life.” The film’s stilted yet poetic English-language title, roughly translated from a proverb, invokes a great swath of humanity that clearly has no shortage of compelling and infuriating stories to tell.