Judge Joel Pearce would rather see A World Without Cell Phones.
The film where evil fights over innocence.
A World Without Thieves is yet another crime story, so clearly designed to be a warning to Chinese train travelers of the dangers of theft. At the same time, it is told with such sincerity and from such a new perspective that it doesn't feel quite like any other crime thriller I've ever seen.
Facts of the Case
Wang Bo (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) is a skilled pickpocket, hardened by the crime that he's surrounded himself with. He has a longtime partner, the beautiful drifter Wang Li (Rene Liu, Double Vision). She is tiring of the life they've chosen, and has a shift in perspective after they stop off at a temple. She leaves Wang Bo, and comes across something she's never seen before: a completely innocent man. He is nicknamed Dumbo (Baoqiang Wang) by his friends, and is now taking a package of money back home to get a new life started. When Wang Bo turns up again, he wants to take advantage of the easy target, but Wang Li makes him promise to help protect the naive young man.
Our two antiheroes aren't the only thieves on this train, though. Uncle Bill (You Ge, The Banquet) is also on the train with his crew, and he's too legendary a thief to let such an easy target escape. Now, the two groups of thieves are placed in an increasingly dangerous competition for the mark, all while trying to keep the young Dumbo in the dark.
I'm starting to understand why the Chinese film industry churns out so many nationalistic historical films. When filmmakers want to make a contemporary film, it always seems to turn into a moralistic mess. This certainly prevents A World Without Thieves from becoming the film that it could have been. Such a big fuss is made at the beginning of the film about the dangers of traveling and how much safer it is to ante up the government charge to wire money instead. The end highlights the danger of becoming a thief, and shows how much the police are working to make the Chinese people safe. The film was funded primarily by the Chinese mobile phone company, which explains why Wang Bo and Wang Li use their cell phones constantly, even when they are sitting together. None of these things destroys the film, but they are distractions that keep us from the real business of telling the story and often slow A World Without Thieves down to a crawl.
Indeed, the performances are quite good overall. Andy Lau has the perfect charisma for this role, so that we can't help but like him, even though we know he's a bad man doing bad things. Baoqiang Wang makes a great fop, so lost in the larger world that he's found himself in. It adds some lightness and humor to what's otherwise a surprisingly dour caper flick. You Ge is also excellent as the villain, a character who becomes more impressive each time we learn something new about him. Finally, Wang Li is an excellent moral center for the film, and a conduit between the two worlds. This web of characters is created with so much care and balance.
The cinematography is quite slick as well. It's hard to tell what the thieves are doing when they start competing, but it's because they are all so skilled at their trades. It's like watching great magic tricks, where we know that we're seeing something remarkable, but it's never quite revealed how it's possible. There are quite a few tense moments, and a surprising variety considering how much of the film's running time takes place on the train.
Between those tense moments, however, there is a surprising collection of drab, repetitive sequences. We do need time to see the relationships between the characters develop, which is a good thing, but it soon gets out of hand. Each time we return to the original train car, we know we're in for yet another run through the basic character information. Dumbo is innocent. Wang Li is trying to change. Wang Bo is a thief. It doesn't help that the ending has several false conclusions, then a "revelation" that's only a surprise for the characters. The audience knows from the very first scene. A World Without Thieves had me fascinated halfway through, but became a chore to watch by the end.
Tartan has done an acceptable job with this release. The image quality is overall good, though someone turned the contrast knob up way too high, either when creating the original print or putting together this transfer. It makes for wild swashes of color and garish skin tones. That said, it is progressively flagged, which is rare for a Tartan release. At first, I thought it might be a creative choice to get things established, but it never gets turned off. While the sound transfer is front-heavy, it features some excellent bass extension, clear dialogue, and a mix that's easy to listen to.
The disc has several special features, including several deleted scenes. They add little to the film, but do flesh out the characters a bit more. A production featurette is also included, but it's only two minutes long, hardly an in-depth documentary.
For Asian film fans looking for something different, it's nice to see a caper film that doesn't play out the same way as the others. A World Without Thieves has a unique look and feel, despite a few missteps along the way. It's certainly not destined to become a classic, though, since it lacks the subtlety that's needed. I look forward to a time when Chinese filmmakers can create the entertainment they want, without this kind of creative interference.
Like the characters, A World Without Thieves is guilty but has redeemed itself in the end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Production Featurette
Review content copyright © 2007 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.