Monday 28 February 2011

A World Without Thieves (2004)

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Stars: Josie Ho and Eason Chen

A young couple played by Andy Lau and Rene Liu have a bright future as this film opens, looking very much in love as they drive their BMW through some truly astounding scenery. This is the sort of situation where romantic comedies tend to end, but as we soon discover in this case it's where they begin. Nothing is what it seems: they're partners both in marriage and in profession, but the BMW isn't theirs and she wants out of their life as thieves as soon as it's fenced in Tibet and she gets her share. She wants a normal life. She's Wang Li, devout enough to want to stop and pray at a Buddhist temple they pass. He's Wang Bo, who takes the opportunity to pick a few pockets, with the aid of a razor blade and some neatly applied CGI. The stop doesn't help. 'What is there between us except money?' she asks him, then gets out of the car to walk back to the temple. So much for romance, right? Well, the rest of the film tries to get it back, amongst much more.

This one came as a surprise to me. It's sat on my DVR for a couple of years and I was expecting a routine Hong Kong action thriller. Instead, it's a beguiling combination of Hong Kong action with Chinese spirituality, set mostly on a train oozing with ethnic flavour and acted with panache by an ensemble cast. The spirituality comes from the character of Sha Gen, or Dumbo in the English translation, a truly na├»ve boy who both the Wangs adopt, though for different reasons. An orphan who has spent the last five years doing repair work at the temple, racking up ¥60,000 he hasn't spent, which he withdraws so he can go home, build a house and find a wife, taking the money with him on the train. The action comes from that money being an attractive proposition for the many thieves on the train, not just Wang Bo but a group led by the deceptively ancient Uncle Li. This sets up a whole slew of character dynamics which are well explored.

I've seen a number of these actors before, in a variety of films, but never Wang Baoqiang, who plays Dumbo. He was a relatively inexperienced actor at this point, unable to find the sort of martial arts roles he had trained as a child to play, inspired by Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Instead he ended up in dramatic character roles for which, if this is anything to go by, he shows unusual talent. Dumbo is so utterly disconnected from reality that he appears to be mentally retarded in some manner, not just a good man, but one so good that he cannot comprehend evil. He not only rejects advice to wire his money home, but he rejects outright the very concept of thieves too. Outside the station he loudly announces how much money he has with him and asks any thieves there to identify themselves, which of course they do, albeit not in so many words. Yet even as thieves work their trade all around him, he never notices. His innocence is catching.
The film works on two levels. On one it's an action film, where thief fights thief with the sort of rapid fire but insanely precise movements Hong Kong cinema is known for. The tricks Wang Bo and Uncle Li use to peel eggs reminded me of the dice shaker tricks in God of Gamblers, also starring Andy Lau, albeit a full fifteen years earlier. If you can imagine those sort of moves with razor blades and cigar cutters, you have an idea of what this film conjures up. CGI is used very sparingly and always to great effect, something I very rarely see. All Uncle Li's band of thieves are well versed in this sort of action, not just Ge You, who plays Uncle Li himself, but You Yong, Gordon Lam and Li Bingbing as his number two, Four Eyes and Little Leaf respectively. While Wang Bo and Uncle Li's thieves battle each other over the money, Wang Li decides instead to become Dumbo's protector, leaving her husband in dubious moral territory.

She's the epitome of the second level the film works on, as a tale of redemption. Dumbo is such an incessant force for innocence that he can't help but influence those around him, especially Wang Li, for whom he's already done a couple of good deeds, who wants to quit her profession anyway and who seeks to improve her karma through helping him out. When Wang Bo fleeces him of some of his money, not by sleight of hand but by social engineering, she gives it back and decides to adopt him as her little brother. There's much more here about goodness, kindness and belief, not to mention karma, but it would be unfair to spoil the unfolding of such gems. It isn't all about not taking, it's about giving too, and the lessons are learned through interaction with Dumbo, who Uncle Li's band describe as a 'brainless lamb snuggled between two thieving wolves.' I'd just call him as unaware of the world as a young man could be.
I'm not sure if there's a downside to this movie. Some reviewers seem to have mild problems with the ending but I didn't. I did want much more exploration of the various dynamics in play within Uncle Li's organisation, but perhaps that approach would have detracted from the balance between action and spirituality by keeping Dumbo off screen for longer than necessary. However much the thieves dance their professional dance amongst themselves, he's the grounding for the entire film and his money is the McGuffin of the picture. If anything, the downside of the film was the unfortunate choice to release it in the same month as Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, which became the highest grossing film in Hong Kong history and swept the awards that year, all of which may have hurt the chances of this film at the box office there. In China, it was a huge success, grossing ¥100m in its year of release alone.

There are certainly many upsides, not least the flavour of the picture, as the sets, costumes and scenery are magnificent. Li Zhang's cinematography is accomplished, especially as much of the film takes place on a very cramped train. He would go on to be the director of photography on John Woo's Red Cliff. The cat and mouse tension is maintained throughout, even while Dumbo's spirituality spreads, because of the tight script by director Feng Xiaogang, which won a Golden Horse for adapted screenplay, and the acting, not just by Andy Lau and Rene Liu, but also Ge You and Wang Baoqiang. Lau is showing his age but he's still dynamic and versatile. Rene Liu reminded me of a young Michelle Yeoh. Ge You is a joy to behold as Uncle Li, suitably devious for a character whose real name, Hu Li, means 'fox' in Mandarin. I wonder if Li Bingbing's look here was pinched for Fauxlivia in Fringe. They look very similar.

There are other things I'd love to tell you about, but they would count as spoilers and would be inappropriate for a film as clever as this, with tight plotting that keeps us guessing throughout. I have a feeling that this one will stay with me much longer than other Asian films that rely on hooks in the plot, because they don't play as well on future viewings and I think A World Without Thieves may just get better. While it's always good to see Andy Lau and demonstrations of Li Bingbing's flexibility can never be a bad thing, I'm keen to see much more of each of their co-stars here, especially Wang Baoqiang. His breakthrough was a year earlier in a film called Blind Shaft, but this consolidated his stature and he went on to star in a number of Chinese TV series, including An Suan, in which he played a blind intelligence agent with enhanced hearing. It would be especially interesting to see his other work and then come back to A World Without Thieves.

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