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Hong Kong film festival: Powerful visions of poverty

March 22, 2012 | 11:49 am

"People Mountain People Sea"

One of the major themes running through the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival is lives on the margins. Poverty can take many shapes, but the singular message is that a life without hope -- a poverty of the spirit -- is the most devastating result of any economic travails.

Two dramas playing here -- "Choked" and "People Mountain People Sea" -- take this matter head-on in very different ways, yet they're alike in the idea of how lives get derailed by bad times.

“Choked,” out of South Korea, proves to be an impressive feature film debut from writer/director Kim Joong-hyun. The story grew out of a latent fear the director had in college -– what would happen if a mother disappeared and a son was left behind to deal with the mess?

"Choked" earns its no-air, no-escape title. An increasingly tense thriller, it is set in a city on the rise, all captured with a slightly noirish style. It begins with Um Tae-goo playing the promising new company man with prospects. He has a good job with an industrious outfit that is in the not-so-good business of getting apartment dwellers to relocate so their buildings can be torn down for pricier projects. It’s the kind of forced relocation that “progress” demands is these modern times. He’s an earnest sort with a pretty fiancee who may be out of his league, and lots of plans -- all of which begin to unravel when his mother (Kil Hae-yeon) disappears. He's left with an impossible mountain of her unresolved debt, an unrelenting loan shark and a particularly insistent single mother who is determined to get her due.

It’s a dark story that turns out to be a mystery as much as anything else, with twists and turns that will surprise you. A mood piece and a morality tale smartly constructed by the filmmaker, the movie features a performance by Um that is a study in quiet desperation -- a young man weighed down by his mother’s indiscretions as much as by her debts and that breathless sense that there is no way out.  

A world away in the mountains of rural China, “People Mountain People Sea” has its own tale of woe. It's a remarkably candid look at the Chinese underclass -- from rural villagers worn down by hard labor and barely able to survive, to the urban ghettos filled with drug users and toughs. The film is the second feature directed by Cai Shangjun, who spent some years as a successful screenwriter before making the move to directing with his first feature “The Red Awn” in 2007, a film about a father and son trying to rebuild their broken relationship. 

This latest effort, which earned the director a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival, is also about family ties -– this time it’s an older brother trying to find the man who murdered his younger brother. But what Cai is really digging into is the forgotten people of China, those so deep in economic decline that they might as well not exist. 

It is social commentary without the polemics, as the older brother finds that the loss around him is much larger than his own personal grief, that the sea of lost souls is so much larger than he imagined. He travels from the mountains that he knows as a stonecutter to the seaside cities where he is a stranger. Everywhere he turns, there is human suffering. (People Mountain People Sea (人山人海) is a Chinese expression meaning "huge crowds of people.")

Cai has created a powerfully bleak story of few words and extraordinary images, the camera capturing the harsh beauty of the mountains, the dense squalor of the urban ghettos. At one point, a soothsayer warns the journey will change the stonecutter's life, both a truth and an understatement.

Together the two films together speak of family and poverty and the price of being without hope. Powerful voices on relevant issues that make you glad they spoke up.


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Hong Kong Festival changing with the times

Hong Kong Film Festival opening night

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic, reporting from Hong Kong

Photo: A scene from "People Mountain People Sea."