Combining one of Mainland China's most successful filmmakers with one of Asia's most popular movie stars, "A World Without Thieves" was a smash success in China upon its release in 2004, yet only now arrives on video Stateside.
The filmmaker is Feng Xiaogang, director of "Big Shot's Funeral" and "Cell Phone." The star is Andy Lau, the magestar of "Infernal Affairs" and "House of Flying Daggers." Also on hand are Rene Liu ("The Personals"), Wang Baoqiang ("Blind Shaft"), and Ge You ("To Live"). A hit was inevitable - but the film never quite earns it. It's a muddled, scattershot affair, never quite reaching the heights its inventive premise implies.
Considering the acting is solid and the cinematography is drop dead gorgeous, I'm tempted to place the blame entirely on Xiaogang, who steps away from his familiar world of bitter satire to deliver something straightforward, unironic, and serious. Xiaogang, who also penned the screenplay (adapting the novel by Xhao Benfu), overplays the melodrama and bungles the action (his attempts to match the balletic stuntwork of his Hong Kong equals never quite fit with the tone of the rest of the picture), and his story overstays its welcome, repeating and re-repeating key information and plot twists until we don't really care too much. We're tired of the movie long before it finally works its way around to any sort of conclusion.
And yet there's a terrific story under all of this - if only Xiaogang could have found it. Bo (Lau) and Li (Liu) are professional swindlers, he a master pickpocket, she a first-rate grifter. When we first meet them, they've just finished another con, but she's grown tired of the lifestyle and is eager to quit. It's not as easy as that, of course (is it ever in the movies?), and they find themselves on a cross-country train ride alongside a naïve carpenter (Baogiang) who's carrying around his life savings in cash. (The poor dope doesn't believe in such things as criminals.) When Li discovers a band of sinister thieves is out to relieve the bumpkin of his burden, she opts to protect him at all costs (and thus preserve his innocent worldview), while Bo must debate whether to help Li or simply take the money for himself.
By all accounts, this should lead to a cracking caper flick, what with the multiple criminals all out to double- and triple-cross each other in their attempts at landing that cash, all while trapped within the confines of a passenger train. (A train, mind you, that's decked out with enough amenities - among them a vast nightclub - to keep the story from growing too claustrophobic.) This could be "Narrow Margin" crossed ingeniously with a Mamet thriller.
Instead, it's a meandering clutter, with one-dimensional, over-the-top characters stuck in situations that zigzag from mediocre action to ridiculous drama; any attempts to add depth to the proceedings only leave us with soap opera-worthy revelations. Worse, there are some scenes that whiz by with little attention paid toward coherence (an early swindle makes no sense at all, but we're not supposed to care because it sure looks cool in slo-mo), while other scenes (mainly anything involving multiple switcheroos) wind up over-explained with clunky, redundant dialogue.
Fortunately, the cast is able to lift the material. Not enough to completely rescue the film, but enough to make it workable in spots. Lau (despite reports from those more in the know that suggest his Mandarin needs work) and Liu bring a quiet depth to their flat characters, while Ge You, as the leader of the sinister crooks, offers up a delicious dose of menace. While "A World Without Thieves" fails on a storytelling level, it shines with its cast. Lau fans will be frustrated by the plotting, but at least they'll have their favorite superstar to carry them through.
Video & Audio
As mentioned, the photography is stunning, mixing warm, inviting shots of the Mainland countryside (that almost serve as a travelogue) with cold, detached shots of the criminals in their own world. The lush anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer excellently captures all of this. This disc looks stunning.
The original Mandarin soundtrack is offered up in your choice of Dolby 5.1, DTS 5.1, and Dolby 2.0. The two surround tracks are both a little on the loud side but otherwise sound fantastic; the stereo track is passable but obviously less impressive. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Six deleted scenes (8:57 total) offer small asides to the main story but are ultimately unnecessary. Presented in a 2.35:1 flat letterbox.
"The Making of A World Without Thieves" is a ridiculously frustrating fluff piece, chopped up into six bite-size mini-chunks - the first three are two minutes apiece, the last three are a mere one minute each. There's nothing here worth checking out (your usual chatter about everyone being terrific and the story being terrific and so on), especially with the tiny running times and heavy use of film clips essentially leaving each of the six segments to be a handful of sound bites. They're more like the kind of filler that might appear on TV during a commercial break, helping to promote the movie. Presented in a 1.85:1 flat letterbox, with the film clips shown at a proper 2.35:1.
Also included are the film's original trailer (2:03) and a gallery of production stills that plays in slideshow format (3:26); both are shown in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. All of the above features also feature optional English subtitles.
Previews for four other Tartan releases round out the set.
"A World Without Thieves" has found a strong fan base in the past few years, but I can't quite see the appeal. There are some solid standalone moments, but as a whole, it lags and creaks. Rent It if you're a fan of Asian films curious to see what the fuss is.