Review of People Mountain People Sea

July 9, 2012

Review of People Mountain People Sea (人山人海;China/Hong Kong, 2011), A Sunrise Media Corporation Limited production.

Director: CAI Shangjun
Producer: Li Xudong
Executive Producers: Edmond Lo, Anita Wang, Niu Nan, Henry Heung, Han Deliri, Alan Cheung
Screenwriters: Gu Xiaobai, Cai Shangjun, Gu Zheng
Director of Photography: Dong Jinsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Production Designer: Zhai Tao, Jin Yang
Music: Zhou Jiaojiao
Costumes: Laurance Xu
Cast: Chen Jianbin, Tao Hong, Wu Xiubo
Running time: 91 MIN.

Shaoyi’s Rating: C+ (Average)

People Mountain People Sea (Renshan renhai; 2011), directed by CAI Shangjun.

Small-budget and independently produced Chinese films are rarely shown in Chinese theaters, despite the impressive increase of the number of theater screens in China in recent years. But this does not apply to film festivals. At the just-ended Shanghai International Film Festival, Chinese films, big or small, independent or mainstream, were among the hottest titles pursued by film enthusiasts, particularly by delegates from outside of China.

I managed to see only one Chinese film at the festival, therefore, and this turned out to be a major disappointment: People Mountain People Sea, directed by Cai Shangjun, a Central Academy of Theater Arts graduate, who is more well known as a screenwriter (penned Zhang Yang’s Shower and Sunflower, among others) and stage director. The film won the Silver Lion for Best Direction award at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival. After the screening at SIFF’s major venue, before which Cai himself was on stage and briefly introduced, many audiences rumored that the version is not exactly the one played at Venice, implying the SIFF one is heavily censored before its China release.

No matter whether the one I saw is censored or not, People Mountain People Sea fails to effectively deliver the somber message the filmmaker seems to intend to convey. Based on a true event, the film’s story is simple and straightforward: after his brother is randomly murdered and the local police fails to locate where the suspect is, the hero Lao Tie, who lives in a remote and mountainous village in China’s southwest, embarks on his nationwide journey, which covers as far as the grassland of Inner Mongolia, trying to track down the suspect, thus the film’s title “People Mountain People Sea,” meaning to locate the needle in the haystack of China’s more than 1.3 billion people. The journey ends unexpectedly in a prison-like mine, which resembles the scenes in 1932 Hollywood classic I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Despite being dubbed a manhunt road movie, People Mountain People Sea is slow paced, full of unnecessary long takes, abrupt changes of scenery, and contrived roughness. It is neither a sufficient exploration of the protagonist nor a consistent depiction of the uneven development of contemporary Chinese society. One interesting sequence is where Lao Tie sleeps on the suspect’s bed and dines with the suspect’s family, including his wife and mother, while waiting for the suspect’s possible return. Regrettably, the potential of this implicitly volatile scene is not fully explored.