New film "People Mountain People Sea" paints a bleak picture of rural China in a story about Lao Tie and his quest for revenge in the absence of state justice.
Directed by Beijing-born Cai Shangjun, the movie is the "surprise" at this year's Venice film festival, where the main competition lineup is traditionally expanded by one late entry.
The competition now comprises 23 movies.
In 2006 Jia Zhangke, also from China, was the surprise entry at the world's oldest film festival and went on to win the coveted Golden Lion for best picture.
His "Still Life" similarly dealt with the plight of ordinary Chinese who have been bypassed by the economic "miracle" that dominates Western headlines.
"People Mountain People Sea" is based on a true story in which a band of brothers hunted down their sibling's killer.
Cai reduces the brothers to a single character Lao played by Chen Jianbin, who goes in search of his brother's murderer realizing the police will never pursue the case.
The impoverished peasant visits the city where he meets his estranged wife and son and ends up in an illegal mine in remote China where the killer has gone into hiding.
"When we were young, in China in the 1970s there was a song we were all very familiar with -- the Internationale," Cai told Reuters in an interview in Venice.
"There is a part in the song in which the lyrics go 'no savior from on high delivers, no faith have we in prince or peer'," he added, speaking through a translator.
"This interested me because I found that when in need no one can really rely on finding help through the official processes or from laws. Justice needs to be found by oneself. I feel there is a connection (between the film and) the current society of China."
The mine scenes are particularly hard-hitting in their portrayal of difficult and dangerous working conditions and unscrupulous owners treating their employees as slaves.
One miner involved in a fight is executed in front of his colleagues.
Cai said he was attracted to his taciturn character Lao, who, rather than meekly suffer injustice and abuse decides his own destiny in the end.
"Facing the final shackles, he does not choose silence, but to fight with his life and to use violence against violence," the director said.