Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"A World Without Thieves" Review

“A World Without Thieves” (Chinese title: Tian Xia Wu Zei), a film from writer/director Feng Xiaogang based on the original novel by Zhao Benfu, tells the story of a con couple facing a moral dilemma while traveling by train through the mountains of China. The Wangs’ trouble begins soon after the opening in which they blackmail a businessman in order to extort his BMW. On their way through Tibet, Wang Li (played by Rene Liu) mysteriously calls it quits from her life of crime, claiming that there’s nothing but money between her and Wang Bo (played by Andy Lau). In her journey outside the car, she encounters the young and naïve carpenter, only known as Dumbo (played by Wang Baoqiang). Dumbo has just decided to take the 60,000 Yuan he has earned working in the town back to his unnamed village so that he can buy a house and find a wife. Their encounter is brief and friendly, yet profound. They meet again the following day at the train station along with Wang Bo. In his trusting and naïve manner, Dumbo is speaking loudly about the money he is carrying with him and shouts, “Which one of you is a thief.” The irony of his question is that his entire journey is surrounded by a consortium of thieves led by Uncle Li (played by You Ge).

The film is very entertaining from the beginning. There is humor and drama almost instantly. However, this doesn’t last long enough. The only dynamic characters to exist in this world are Li and Bo—everyone else is a basic two-dimensional character with predictable roles and motives.
This is a far cry from an artistic film. It does manage to have a few beautiful scenic clips of the Tibetan landscape as the train rolls through the vast countryside. Feng tends to over use the slight-of-hand, slow-motion images of thieves dueling with razor blades. It’s a nice touch when watching them steal wallets and small electronics from worshippers at a Buddhist temple, but it gets old after that.

It seems that the premise of the film is simply that there are three kinds of people in the world: the naïve, the thieves, and the cops. It is filled with escapism in all forms—from figurative to literal escapes involving moral and physical dilemmas.

There are quite a few truths to be found in the course of the movie. Dumbo proclaims that “People can’t be worse than wolves.” In his innocence, he believes that if a wolf won’t harm him, why should another human. Another truth to be told is, “This century’s most expensive commodity is talent.” Although it was said in reference to finding good thieves to join Uncle Li’s gang, it hold true for many other aspects of life.

There is nothing wrong with spending nearly two hours with “A World Without Thieves”. It’s a fine piece of entertainment and enjoyable. It even contains a decent amount of humor. Just don’t expect anything more than that.

On a side note: the subtitles are very good (unlike many films I’ve seen on television in China) and the film was nominated for Best Asian Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005.

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