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August 19, 2010

A World without Thieves

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Tian xia wu zei
Feng Xiaogang - 2004
Tartan Video Region 1 DVD

I've only seen four films by Feng Xiaogang. Even when I don't find the work successful, I feel some respect for his ambition. Feng should be a better known filmmaker outside of China, if for no other reason than that he has made the two most financially successful Chinese films back to back. The romantic comic drama, If You are the One from 2008 has recently been bested by this year's disaster epic, Aftershock. The box office in dollars may seem like no big deal, about 75 million or so, but when you consider the size of the audience, this is the equivalent to Spielberg, Cameron or Nolan. Does this make Feng a great, or even good filmmaker? No. But it may be at least one reason to pay more attention to the guy and his films.

Feng almost undermines himself by tarting up his images with unnecessary digital coloring, when letting the story speak for itself would be sufficient. At several points, there is so much cutting of action that is meant to reveal rather than obscure, that one wishes Feng had allowed the camera to linger when thief tries to outwit thief. That the spiritual journey is concurrent with the train journey also makes what Feng might have to say about free will and karma groaningly obvious. What makes the film work is the engagement of the actors, lead by Andy Lau, with sly turns by Ge You and Li Bingbing.

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That the film may be intended as some kind of Buddhist parable is difficult to say as the Buddhism depicted in this film is both generic and casual. A man and a woman are introduced, arguing while on a road trip. It is eventually revealed that they are professional thieves in a stolen BMW. Wang Bo (Andy Lau) and Wang Li (Rene Liu) are also lovers. Wang Li tells Wang Bo that she wants a "normal life", stop with the thievery. For Wang Bo, it is once a thief, always a thief. The two stop at a Buddhist shrine under restoration. While Wang Li joins others in prayer, Wang Bo finds plenty of pockets to pick. He also encounters a young woman with similar designs on the unsuspecting worshippers. Another argument leaves Wang Li on the road, alone and distraught, until the open-faced, naive, Sha Gen, known as Dumbo according to the subtitles, picks up Wang Li on his bicycle. An offer of money for the ride is refused, though Dumbo gives Wang Li a talisman said to ward off evil.

Dumbo has earned 60,000 yuan, about $9000 U.S. dollars, in his five years of working as a craftsman. His plan is to return to his small village to buy a house and get married. In spite of encouragement to wire the money, he feels secure enough to carry the cash in a satchel. Standing outside the train station, he shouts out for any thieves to identify themselves to him. Wang Li appoints herself as Dumbo's protector, with Wang Li trying to get the money for himself. Also on the train is a rival gang of pickpockets, lead by the aphorism spouting Uncle Li. Among Li's gang is the previously spotted young woman, Leaf. The majority of the film takes place on the train with Wang Li trying to outguess Wang Bo, and the pair kept on their toes by Uncle Li and his gang.

With the exception of Dumbo and Wang Li, the other characters are disguised, either in costume or intention. Dumbo sees only goodness in other people, calling Wang Li a Boddhisattva, and ascribing good intentions to Wang Li. For Wang Li, visiting the Buddhist shrine is an attempt to change her self-perceived karma, while Wang Bo indirectly argues that karma is immutable. Wang Bo feels that stealing Dumbo's money will provide a life lesson on the realities of life. Wang Li does what she can to protect Dumbo and his money so that he can continue his belief in "a world without thieves".

The philosophizing is set aside for more visceral set pieces, such as Wang Li standing on top of a moving train with two of the rival gang member, facing a tunnel just low enough to knock off somebody's head. There is a furious dance of sorts between Wang Li and Leaf, done to flamenco music, one of several scenes of mutual attraction and distrust between the two.

Where the film does not work is in depicting the sleight of hand involved in the thievery, especially that between thieves. Feng's editing of very quick shots of hands going in and out of pockets might have intended to indicate just how fast these professionals work. The lack of clarity regarding who is doing what to whom stands in sharp contrast to Johnny To's look at Hong Kong pickpockets, Sparrow, where the hand movement is more clearly, and thrillingly, depicted. A World without Thieves does work as a thinly disguised critique of post-revolutionary China, where money and appearances are valued more than good intentions or camaraderie. The ending is ambivalent, ending where the film began, at the Buddhist shrine. Where a sense of order cannot be restored by the police from the outside, order will be internally restored by traditional religious beliefs or karmic retribution.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 19, 2010 12:41 AM