Sunday, January 27, 2008

A World Without Thieves: Grade B

A World Without Thieves (2004)
Andy Lau, Rene Liu. Writer-director: Xiaogang Feng. Chinese (subtitled).

A pair of thieves in contemporary China spot a village idiot on a train carrying his life savings in his backpack. The woman thief (Liu) has compassion on the boy and resolves to protect him and even resolves to “quit the business” and settle down, possibly because she is secretly pregnant. Her partner however can’t get his mind off that money. A rival band of thieves on the same train also spot the mark. Lau’s character repeatedly saves the boy, rescues the money from the “bad” thieves, and reluctantly returns it, to appease his girlfriend. There are numerous battles of wits, tricks, picking of pockets, and contests of skill, many involving eggs, which apparently figure large in the rural Chinese mindscape. The characters are attractive, the story amusing, and the acting convincing although played with self-conscious irony much of the time. Characters often quote Confucius (I assume) at each other to convey complex meanings indirectly. Those are quite witty, probably much more so for a native speaker. The cinematography is wonderful, displaying the Chinese countryside, villages and cities with equal care. The train set is a hothouse where the action sprouts organically. It is a small movie. There is no master strategy, as in The Sting or The Orient Express; just a series of incidents. The film also lacks the epic historical sweep of many Chinese pictures and there are no martial arts or traditional costumes or weaponry on display. But the story carries its weight and as a bonus you get a glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.

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