'People Mountain People Sea'

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-8 20:50:03

Promotional Poster Photo:CFP
Promotional Poster Photo:CFP 

Director and script writer Cai Shangjun is not expecting to break domestic box office records with his new film, People Mountain People Sea, though Cai has already received a Silver Lion award at last year's Venice International Film Festival for best director.

Cai's latest film is based on a true story that took place in 2007 in Guizhou Province. After Dai Tianyun, a farmer and the youngest of six brothers is murdered, his brothers ban together to pursue the murderer for a year. The brothers eventually catch and hand over the murderer to authorities. 

Though other directors may turn such a story into a dramatic Hollywood style action flick, Cai made an artistic, minimalist film, which might not attract mainstream crowds.


Cai first read about the story on the Internet in 2008, but it was not until 2009 that he thought about making it into a movie.

 "As it lingered in my memory for such a long time, I thought it was a sign," Cai said.

After encountering many versions of the same story, Cai decided to go to Guizhou with scriptwriters Gu Xiaobai and Gu Zheng. 

In June 2009, the trio lived with the Dai brothers for a week. The most time consuming part was deciding how to craft the script.

"Though this is a legendary story about real men, when we wrote the script, we were not interested in how they caught the murderer," Cai said after a screening last Sunday. Instead, Cai wanted to focus on how the farmers took action into their own hands, in light of a cruel situation.

In the end, the story they came up with did not resemble the real life event.

"[The real story] only triggered the movie. So when I look back, I think it is more like a fable than a documentary," Cai said. 

Instead of the five brothers, the director chose one man to star as the protagonist Lao Tie, played by actor Chen Jianbin. At the end, the murderer is killed, before Lao Tie catches him. 

"There is no need to make Lao Tie resemble the Dai brothers. I believe in Chen's portrayal of Lao Tie. I like the characteristics he portrays; he dares to fight," Cai said.

Going abroad

Cai knew that getting a permit from the government would be important, and therefore he submitted a script that he knew would pass censors.

He said that having a permit was convenient when shooting certain scenes and would sometimes even bring in additional help. 

Trouble arose when authorities discovered that the final script was very different from what was submitted.

"The authorities wondered whether we were trying to deceive them with two vastly different scripts," Cai said. "I explained that I saw certain problems in the original version and therefore made changes." 

Cai said he encountered further difficulties when he wanted to screen the film at the Venice International Film Festival. Because the film involves dark elements, like police mistreating and taking money from prisoners, authorities did not think the film portrayed China positively. 

But since some of the film's investors are from Hong Kong, Cai got approval by citing it as a Hong Kong movie.

Cai told the Global Times that personally, he is ambivalent about the movie screening in the Chinese mainland.

"Maybe it would be better if it did not. Then people would be more curious," Cai joked.

But like any work of art, a movie is created by a team. It needs capital  support, performers and audiences.

"A movie finishes its work of communication and transmission only after people have watched it. It's not [an act of] me sitting and watching it at home alone," he said. 

Despite the troubles encountered, Cai thinks it's important to build communication with authorities.

"Without communication, it's over," he said, adding that the environment this year improved with movies like Beijing Blues and White Deer Plain. These films both examine societal problems, yet were screened at theaters domestically.

"We need to try. We need to practice and make breakthroughs for development," Cai said. 

Filling a niche

"Even if People Mountain People Sea has little influence at the domestic box office, such a film is important. Its existence marks a step in the film industry and chain," script writer Song Fangjin said. 

He said that a healthy movie industry should combine films from all genres, ranging from the commercial film to the art movie.

But in recent years, he finds that "mainstream and vulgar movies occupy a large share."

Song said mainstream movies have very strong relationships with the government. It's easy for these films to make money. Some of these commercial movies only care about big celebrity names and spectacular scenes, not quality stories.

"People Mountain People Sea is made for the heart. It is valuable because of the limited number of films in this genre," he said.

Some critics are unsure however, about the film's content.

"Lao Tie's actions are too different, people prefer to be an onlooker and find it difficult to identify with him, whereas farmers in The Story of Qiuju (a 1993 movie directed by Zhang Yimou) and The Accused Uncle Shang Gang (a 1994 movie directed by Fan Yuan) behave like us. Audiences can sympathize with the characters," said movie critic Fang Liuxiang.

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