“If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness and silence.”
– Joseph Conrad
‘People Mountain People Sea’ are China’s multitudes, its masses toiling in factories, mines, quarries, lumberyards, the invisible hordes with whose labor the grand edifice of modern China is being erected. Lao Tie, or ‘Old Iron’ in English, is one of this multitude – a miner, quarry worker, day-laborer – who works in the Earth’s bowels extracting through violence the very ore and stone with which China is building itself.
After his brother is murdered in a wanton, random act of violence (a hyper-realistic crime) Old Iron sets himself on a quest for vengeance to seek out his brother’s murderer, quest which will take him across China from hovel to slum to alley to mine. Lao Tie may be one of this multitude, yet his brother’s murder transforms him from passive victim to agent of justice. The inertia of the Chinese bureaucratic justice machine sets him in motion rather than any internal motivation (there is no familial pathos, no screenplayed sorrow which would motivate him to revenge); an impetus arising from a more ancient, almost mythological notion that vengeance is something that is simply done, a quest for a justice which predates the rule of logic and morality, which the privilege of those who can afford to be civilized. And it is this justice which sets him upon his path wordless and with a stony face upon which the logogram of vengeance is inscribed.
Crisscrossing China Lao Tie hunts down his brother’s killer, always a step ahead, a hunt which will lead him to descend into the blackened depths of the earth to discover only that the evil which led to his brother’s murder is the evil which has taken hold of all mankind. It is in the heart of this darkness (both literal and allegorical) where Old Iron discovers, not unlike Colonel Kurz, that evil is not only not strange to mankind, but it is the very base material from which mankind was fabricated, and that none deserve salvation, least of all himself.
As Lao Tie traverses a China staggering epileptically through the throes of its modernization, he sees the violence acted upon men emanating from their actions, from their visages. And we become witness to the juggernaut’s rampage, to the progress which is purely technological, which transforms men into beasts, as China stubbornly repeats the same mistakes as the West in its own industrial revolution, as if humanity could not or did not want to learn its lesson from History.
During Old Iron’s journey across the mainland, the film elides the logic of the chase which would bring him from place to place, which would connect, refusing to support a narrative ideology of the chain of logic, the ideology upon which the glorification of progress is built. These ellipses which blur reasoning, efface logic act in biblical fashion to transform the real brutality of life to a mythological narrative state.
In the final grandiose scene, Lao Tie has finally tracked down his brother’s murderer to an illegal mine, where he too will work as a day laborer in order to get close enough to his brother’s murderer and avenge his death. Miles underground in the lightless mine tunnels, gray-clad, soot-covered men perpetuate incomprehensible acts of violence against one another. In the profound depths of blackness nothing is clear except that that ravages of progress must be brought to an end. Black-faced and coal-bedecked, the killer and his avenger become indifferentiable from one another, from all those who work to feed the great Dragon’s endless hunger; become their true selves – blackened unrecognizable demons, mirror-images reflecting the violences, moral and physical inflicted upon them daily.
Witnessing this darkness, this violence, Old Iron comes to the same conclusion which Colonel Kurz came to in his own jungle of obscurity – that mankind has been corrupted to a point beyond redemption, and peace will only come with total destruction. Yet before blowing up the mine along with the killer, himself, the other miners, (and one can say the foundation of society itself) in a single fantastic paroxysm of violent resistance Lao Tie commits a final single act of grace (albeit also through violence) – he breaks the leg of a young mineworker, one so young that his only sin was of the necessity of labor sparing him from the upcoming destruction, deed which elevates his act from what could have been the individualist vigilante’s act of vengeance, into a social act of justice.
And from the final apocalyptic wasteland of smoldering stone wood and coal emerges an analogy against the pitfalls of progress, a defiant cinematic jeremiad transmuting the hyper-real into the mythological through the act of mise-en scene.