By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 7, 2011 at 4:14AM
The surprise film at a festival always has a tricky time living up to the sky-high expectations. Everyone brings in their own hopes and dreams, however unrealistic they may be, and the finished product has to be pretty special not to underwhelm -- witness the near-riotous reaction at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago when the surprise turned out to be not "Where The Wild Things Are," as widely-rumored, but instead Michael Moore's "Sicko." The reaction is slightly different at Venice, thanks to a reputation that the selectors hold back the most miserable, grueling film for the secret slot, so much so that most audience members are delighted if the film turns out to be anything other than footage of a close family member being slowly murdered.
It also helps if you can actually watch the damn thing. Organizers announced yesterday that the surprise slot would be taken by "People Mountain People Sea," the latest from Chinese director Cai Shangjun ("The Red Awn"), but the morning press screening was canceled mysteriously, while the main screening last night was stopped for thirty minutes after a bulb in the projector gave out. Even when we got to it this morning, the sound dropped out 45 minutes in, leading to a brief hiatus. It can't help but give the impression that a film is somewhat cursed (especially seeing as it was apparently not shown to Chinese censors before the print left the country, something that could have dire consequences for Shangjun).
So, despite the hurdles, or perhaps even because of them, we wanted to like "People Mountain People Sea" (or "Ren Shan Ren Hai") by the time we saw it. Unfortunately, that goodwill couldn't find purchase. The film opens with a striking act of violence, as a man is murdered, unexpectedly for his motorcycle by a stranger he's given a lift to -- unfortunately, the best scene in the film. The man's brother is Lao Tie, who's just been held accountable for the crippling of a colleague in an accident in the mountain quarry where he works (having recently returned from the city), and is expected to pay damages to the family. When he hears of his brother's death, however, that is soon forgotten.
The police know exactly who the killer is -- Xiao Qang, a recently released convict. But Qang himself is nowhere to be found, and Lao Tie takes it upon himself to track him down, heading back to the city, and beyond, in search of vengeance for his brother, but soon unleashing a long-suppressed streak of violence of his own.
"People Mountain People Sea" is certainly a brave film; considering its depiction of a corrupt city police force (albeit balanced by a sympathetic, competent rural one), and of the horrific conditions at an illegal mine in the north of the country, the kind of thing that the Chinese authorities are very sensitive about, we're not entirely surprised that the film was snuck out of the country -- that rubber stamp from the censor might have been a long time coming. It's also brave in terms of the way that it challenges its audience, with long takes, often in long shot, oblique storytelling, and almost total lack of dialogue -- when the sound did give out, it took us some time to notice, in fact.
Shangjun certainly has skills, with some thrilling compositions, particularly in the early, mountainous section, and he's admirably happy to linger on a totally empty frame. And despite the revenge movie set-up, it never quite fits into that genre, taking things in some unexpected directions. But the film is deathly slow. So very slow. Lao Tie's quest is aimless, setting out from home with no plan other to show pictures of Xiao Qang's face around, and as he journeys, the film never picks up any narrative momentum. That's without mentioning the narrative muddiness: it takes a little while to establish that the anti-hero has returned home after some journeying, while Shangjun isn't exactly keen to help you out. In one unnecessary-shock-value rape sequence, it's impossible to tell the perpetrator, or, at that point, who the victim is.
And the pacing is roughly the same speed at which continents shift. There's only so many times we can cope with shots of Lao Tie waving a piece of paper at a stranger's face, but they go on, and on, and on, and we felt we were suffering almost as much as Shangjun's Job-like protagonist. And it doesn't help that the characters, including that protagonist, are so obliquely drawn, and so matter-of-fact in their interactions, that it becomes very difficult to invest much in what's going on, particularly with the actor who plays Lao Tie playing him as such a blank slate.
Things improve in the final half hour, which sees the anti-hero track his quarry to that illegal mine, which is displayed strikingly: leading to some of the film's better moments, and a sour little turn of an ending. But the film is such a slog, even at barely 90 minutes, that it only went a small way towards reeling us back in. We'll certainly be keeping an eye on Shangjun from here on out, but we couldn't see that, even in the unlikely event that the film gets significant international distribution, we'd recommend "People Mountain People Sea" to any but the most die-hard fan of Chinese cinema. [D]