Chinese director Feng Xiaogang's latest film, A World Without Thieves is an interesting look into the lives of two criminals – a husband and wife team named Bo (Hong Kung mega-star Andy Lau of Fulltime Killer) and Li (Rene Liu of The Butterfly Lovers). They make their living as pickpockets, con artists, and petty criminals until one day Le decides that she wants to go legit. She's had enough of this lifestyle that they've been leading together and wants to settle down and build something better for herself. She's so serious about this decision that she basically gives Bo the ultimatum of either agreeing to change with her or finding himself very suddenly quite single.
As all this is going on, they then run into a humble peasant at a train station on his way home to see his family. This peasant, Fu Gen (Baoqiang Wang), is carrying all of the money he earned as a construction worker on him and his naivety is such that he's not suspicious enough of those around him to do much to hide that fact. Bo sees this as a prime opportunity to get rich quick, but doesn't want to make things worse with Li who feels that she should ensure he makes it back to his family with every dollar of his earnings intact.
Soon the three travelers learn that there are bigger problems than Bo's sneaky tactics as there's a gang of bandits on the train that they've just boarded. Lead by a man known only as Uncle Le (Ge You of Farewell My Concubine), they've got their eyes on Fu Gen's cash and they're not too impressed with Bo's attitude either.
Despite the abundance of blatant commercial placements in the film (these are so over the top and so obvious that it can get annoying at times – some of them make the Dr. Pepper can in Spider-Man look subtle by comparison), A World Without Thieves is a very pretty looking film. The camera captures the communist workers of China doing their thing all across the land as the pair of thieves travels around the country (there's a very obvious pro-communist slant to this film, not surprising considering it's from mainland China and not from Hong Kong proper). The scenery is lush and very organic looking and lends an air of elegance to the look of the film. The camera movements are slick and subtle and smooth, not at all like much of the quick cut editing present in so many films as of late.
Performances are all over the place, unfortunately. Andy Lau does a good job as the snarky Bo, playing his role with just enough self-confidence and attitude to get it right. He's a sneak thief, but he's a likeable one. Rene Liu doesn't have much to do as Li but stand there and look cute and ensure that Bo behaves but she does it well – she's a striking looking woman and her screen presence based on her looks alone is hard to miss. Ge You goes a little over the top as Uncle Le a couple of times but he's a fun character and he does a good job with the role even if the material he has to work with doesn't really give the character much weight. Despite the fact that Baoqiang Wang plays Fu Gen as a complete simpleton (read: borderline idiot), he too is not without his charm, adding a sympathetic touch to the role and providing a little bit of comic relief at the same time.
While the ending left a little bit to be desired and the film's horrible commercial product placement and obvious political slant knock it down a few points, A World Without Thieves still has enough going for it to make it worth a watch. It's hardly all that inventive but it is entertaining and quite pretty to look at.
The anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer is sharp and colorful. There's a nice level of detail present throughout the picture and the black levels stay strong and deep. Mpeg compression is never much of a problem, though there are some scenes that show some rather harsh shimmering and some edge enhancement. Aside from that, however, A World Without Thieves does look very nice on DVD. Skin tones are lifelike and natural looking, and the reds and greens and blues used throughout the film are reproduced very nicely. Grain is minimal, print damage is never a problem – the movie looks good.
You've got your choice of DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound mixes in Cantonese or Mandarin, and Dolby Digital EX 6.1 Surround Sound mixes in Cantonese or Mandarin with optional subtitles in English, Traditional Chinese, or simplified Chinese. Audio quality is very nice on all four mixes, each of which I sampled. The DTS tracks have a little more bass, no surprise there, but the Dolby Digital tracks still pack plenty of punch. The Mandarin language tracks are the way to go as that's the language that the film was recorded in. Dialogue is easy to hear and easy to follow, background music and sound effects are clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss and distortion. For the most part, the English subtitles are pretty good, but there are a few awkward phrasings here and there.
The second disc is where all the extras reside, and there you'll find a lengthy making of documentary, a handful of deleted scenes, some cast and crew biographies, a massive still gallery of over two hundred images, storyboards and a few trailers. Sadly, not all of these extra features come with any English subtitles, which make grading them difficult as I don't speak Chinese. The still gallery and storyboards are pretty cool, and the deleted scenes were nice to see (and subbed) running about nine minutes in total and mostly featuring characterization scenes. The making of documentary is about six minutes long and has some interesting behind the scenes footage, but isn't subbed in English. Seeing as this release was intended for the Hong Kong market I can't hold the lack of English subs against it, but it was disappointing to not find any there as some of this material could have been quite interesting.
A World Without Thieves looks and sounds very nice on this two disc DVD release from Hong Kong's Megastar. Picture and audio quality are both great and the movie itself is an interesting drama/romance/action/comedy hybrid that is well worth seeking out. Andy Lau is quite good in it and the direction and cinematography is top notch. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.