Well now we get to the second of my Feng Xiaogang films and this one is fabulous. I have not been as pumped about a film for some time, and have been eager to share my love with you, my faithful readership.
“A World Without Thieves” introduces us to two con artists/pickpockets played by Rene Liu and Andy Lau. Moving on after a successful extortion, they board a train. Liu meets a naive country boy, nicknamed “Dumbo” (Wang Baoqiang), who is openly announces he has 60,000 Yuan in his bag, as he can’t believe that there are bad people in the world. Not only does this raise the criminal attentions of Lau, but also of a more professional outfit, run by Uncle Li (Ge You). Liu however has has a bit of an epiphany, bought on in part by Dumbo’s kindness, but also by another life changing event. She tries to protect Dumbo from the various thieves, and slowly attempts to move Lau to her way of thinking. Uncle Li is not to be distracted from his quest – he likes Lau’s abilities and does not take a failed attempt to recruit him well. So we enter a cat and mouse struggle on a packed train.
The film is surprisingly layered in tone. It starts off as a very light romantic comedy, takes time to provide a little social satire (as much as a Chinese film can), and ends up utterly heart breaking. There are various shades of grey in the world, and this story takes time to look at them all.
It is beautifully shot, whether in the close confines of the public carriages, or in the more luxuriant compartments afforded to the rich. The beautiful Chinese (and Tibetan) is allowed to provide an escape from the cramped environs, and the film allows itself a little trickery when showing the pickpockets in action. One scene is utterly magical – when the two main thieves have a little skills contest using unboiled eggs. Silly yes, but utterly captivating.
The acting is uniformly good. Lau is not bad at all, which is good as he often is an actor which leaves me a little cold. Wang Baogiang plays he naivety very well, I can see how some would find him unrealistic, but I think you have to see him in context. Li BingBing provides solid support as the new female member of the gang, being suitably sexy (and flexible), but also there is a depth there that could have been ignored. The real stars though are Ge You and Rene Liu. Ge You is pretty masterful as the leader of the thieves. What I really liked about it is that you could see he was once truly a leader, but his interest in Li BingBing has eroded his judgement and his leadership. Liu plays the conflicted role well for most of the film, but the last 10 minutes totally belong to her.
And it is a tough ending. Some tough decisions are made, and for once, love does not cure everything.
I really only have a couple of criticisms – the film is easily 15 minutes too long, and more importantly, I think I would have liked to have seen some response from Dumbo about the events that unfurled around him.
Frankly, it is a fantastic film, and asks enough questions to deserve multiple watches. And that makes it… Recommended.