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Venice 2011. Cai Shangjun's "People Mountain People Sea"

Critics are all over the map when it comes to this winner of the Silver Lion.

"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," writes Justin Chang in Variety. "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."

The Surprise Film of the Festival and winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director "had reportedly come to Venice without first receiving permission from the Chinese film censors (when Lou Ye did this, premiering Summer Palace at Cannes in 2006, he was officially banned from filmmaking for five years), and halfway through the screening it seemed for a moment that their government might be striking back." For indieWIRE, Shane Danielsen reports on what little is known about what caused the interruption and the 20-minute delay, which was doubly frustrating "because the film itself was superb, easily one of the very best things here…. Shangjun's storytelling was elliptical, with the viewer left to make many of the connections for themselves. Yet rather than seem maddening, as it might, this actually worked in its favor, increasing the clammy sense of dread throughout. And his direction was never less than absolutely assured."

The story "crisscrosses southwest China from one amazing location to another until the narrative simply implodes in the final key scenes, severely limiting the appeal of this intriguing work," writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. "Even the title is abstruse. People Mountain People Sea is a Chinese expression that refers to a magnificent sea of people, perhaps pointing to a sweeping ambition to say something about the country's teeming poor and disenfranchised."

"A far cry from Cai Shangjun's award-winning debut The Red Awn," finds Screen's Dan Fainaru. At the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton explains why he's given it a D.

 

 

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