A World Without Thieves (2004) Movie Review

“A World Without Thieves”, the latest from acclaimed Mainland Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, follows the criminal life of Bo (Andy Lau) and Li (Rene Liu), wandering husband and wife grifters, con artists, and whatever else takes their fancy. They’ve been in the game for years, when suddenly Li announces that she’s had enough. Not only does she want out of “the life”, but if Bo won’t come along, she’s ready to call it quits with him as well. With both planning to head off in the same direction after splitting up, they run into the naïve Fu Gen at a train station, where their lives take an interesting turn.

Fu Gen, the catharsis for change in Bo and Li’s life, is a simple peasant on his way home to present his family with the money he’s saved up from working on a construction job in the city. He doesn’t want to send the cash via money transfer, because the idea of handing over a portion of his earnings as commission is unthinkable. And being that he’s the simple and goodhearted type, Fu Gen doesn’t believe there can possibly be people in the world that would — gasp — steal his money from him. He’s so dead certain that there’s no such thing as a thief that he’s quite ready to announce to all that he’s carrying a whole stack of money in the bag tucked under his arm.

Enter Bo, who wouldn’t mind relieving Fu Gen of that money. The only thing stopping Bo is the thought that stealing from Fu Gen might jeopardize his chances of getting back with Li, who’s decided to take the innocent man under her wing in the spirit of having turned over a new leaf. The two soon learn that there is a gang of thieves on the train with them, and they don’t share Bo and Li’s affinity for the naïve Fu Gen. The thieves are led by Uncle Li (Ge You), who is at first more concerned with making sure his men behave, but when Bo starts to present a challenge to his authority, he has no choice but to enter into the struggle over Fu Gen’s money. No surprise that Fu Gen is oblivious to all the machinations in the background.

Director Feng Xiaogang is one of the most successful directors in Mainland China, with a string of lucrative blockbusters to his name, including “A Sigh”, “Big Shot’s Funeral”, and “Cellphone”. (“Cellphone” caused something of a national outcry with the way it brought adulterous phone liaisons to light, the Mainland not having quite realised the implications of the new technology.) “A World Without Thieves” drops the satirical threads that usually runs through Xiaogang’s previous productions, and is instead layered with a thick commercial sheen. Every other set piece looks like an ad for something. Buy this whiskey! Drive this car! Book a holiday in China tomorrow; you’ll feel so much better about yourself!

Shameless product placement and black-and-white worldview aside, “A World Without Thieves” turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable. The story is contrived, but brisk, and there are no switchback twists and turns, with the only Big Reveal (of sorts) obvious a mile off. Also, everyone’s character progression is rarely in doubt, and most of the cast doesn’t even get any. As the two leads, Andy Lau (who also played one half of a thief couple in Johnnie To’s “Yesterday Once More”) and Rene Liu (“Double Vision”) manage to generate a fair amount of good chemistry, which makes their relationship believable.

Andy Lau doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but he manages to be likeable even as the cocky Bo, whereas Liu’s physical presence makes up for a lot of her character’s shortcomings. But Ge You comfortably out-acts the pair of them, even though his part doesn’t really require much more than low-key scenery chewing. Even so, You manage to invest the role of Uncle Li with some genuine gravitas and menace. Only Bingbing Li as Fu Gen grates on the nerves, though it’s hardly the actor’s fault for being saddled with a character that comes across to Western audiences as an idiot. And yet the character, and the film as a whole, remains oddly moving despite being such a simplistic morality tale.

As far as unapologetic state propaganda in populist Mainland China movies go, forget the Jet Li movie “Hero”. Barely five minutes into “A World Without Thieves”, the pro-Communist propaganda is already out in force. Hard-working peasants are the soul of the motherland! Capitalism robs the proletariat! Socialism would work if you’d only give it a chance! But chances are your attention will be drawn away from the (not very subtle) propaganda and to the scenery instead. The Chinese countryside and the lavish interiors of the train in “A World Without Thieves” are both shot with ample visual flair. And while the cinematography seems calculated to a fault rather than anything spontaneous, everything still looks undeniably gorgeous.

Although there’s not a lot of action to be found, the couple of fight scenes (of sorts) we do get are beautifully inventive. At one point Bo struggles with Uncle Li’s femme fatale prot’g’ in the confines of the train carriage, with the sequence shot as if it was an elaborate dance routine. And the one notable CG sequence in the movie is so gleefully stupid, yet shot with such verve and played with such a straight face, that you can’t help but admire it.

Sure, “A World Without Thieves” has an agenda, but so does a great deal of multiplex fodder the world over. Feng Xiaogang’s movie is pure popcorn at heart, no matter how desperate it is to not offend State censors. And despite the somewhat unpleasant aftertaste the ending leaves you with, and the knowledge that ultimately this is a fairly disposable piece of cinema, there’s more than enough style, grace and emotion to “A World Without Thieves” to make it worth a look.

Xiaogang Feng (director) / Xiaogang Feng (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Lau …. Wang Bo
Rene Liu …. Wang Li
You Ge …. Uncle Bill
Baoqiang Wang …. Roob
Bingbing Li …. Leaf

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