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天下無賊 (2004)
A World Without Thieves

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 07/22/2010
Summary: peeling a boiled egg

wang bo (andy lau) and wang li (rene lui) are lovers and thieves. the story begins with the pair delivering a stolen bmw via a long, cross-country drive which seems to be causing tension between them. after stopping off at a large temple, li takes the opportunity to pray, whilst bo sees an opportunity to pick some pockets, li walks out on her life of crime and bo. still, leaving your past behind you is never that easy; even with the help of a young, kind-hearted, temple craftsman, known as dumbo (wang baoqiang), li finds herself waiting for the same train home, as bo.

in a strange coincidence, dumbo is also set to board the train; he's planning to return to his home town, with a large amount of cash, which he plans to use to get married, buy a house and become a farmer. li's resolve, to walk on the straight and narrow, is going to be tested, especially as bo has his eyes on dumbo's money. still, keeping dumbo's money safe from bo, seems like an easier prospect than keeping it from uncle li (ge you) and his team of professional pick-pockets; leaf (lee bing-bing) and four eyes (gordon lam)...

‘a world without thieves’ is a slightly odd film. although it appears to have a relatively simplistic premise; how, when bad people try to accomplish good, it can be very difficult, it goes to great lengths to create a narrative which is as contrived and silly as it can be. the film is populated by a fairly improbable, yet strangely familiar, bunch of characters; there's a master pick-pocket, with a questionable code of morals, a grifter who has turned her back on crime and is intent on protecting a young, unbelievably naive, bumpkin and his cash. we also have a master criminal and his minions; the femme fatale and the geek. still, once the set up is established and we move from terra firma onto the rail road, the unexpectedly entertaining nature of the film takes over and, despite the uber-annoying dumbo (who you almost want to be ripped off), it's a surprisingly engaging and entertaining ride.

in a strange way, the cinematography of the film reflects this pattern. from the first shot of the film, throughout the journeys that bo and li make, to arrive on the train, the cinematography is riddled with lush, wide shots of the sky and landscape which they are travelling through. as they move from the buddhist temple to the railway station, the focus of the cinematography, like the narrative, becomes more focussed on the protagonists until, like them, it is restricted to the carriages of the train. the use of the train is definitely a strength of the film, allowing more possibilities than one would expect from such a, seemingly, restrictive location; the hustle and bustle of the passenger cars allow for the creation of a claustrophobic environment, whilst the opulence of the first class and dining carriages provide a welcome contrast, not only environmentally, but also highlighting the difference between bo and li's status in the world of thieves and that of uncle li.

now, tartan bill a world without thieves as "action/romance" but, i've gone with "drama" as i feel it is more accurate and, the only action to speak of is pick-pocketry* and slight of hand. (* yes, i know that isn't a real word.) still, despite feng xiaogang's best attempts to sabotage his own work, using a myriad of slow motion and effects, the numerous scenes of "action" are pretty good. there's some nicely choreographed 'distract and grab' sequences, some nicely worked scenes of pocket-picking and some interesting slight of hand tricks: still, i think your appreciation of these sequences may depend on your interest in such skills. personally, i'm a fan. there's also some nice cgi enhanced trickery; one scene, where bo shows (off) his own, unique, way of peeling a boiled egg and uncle li's response, which is particularly impressive.

feng xiaogang is an interesting director; best known for, his 2001 comedy/satire, ‘big shot's funeral’ or, his 2006 drama, ‘the banquet’, you'd be right to wonder where ‘a world without thieves’ sits in relation to these two films. well, i'm not quite sure, although he certainly doesn't seem to be tying himself to any particular genre, which seems to be the case here. the film is, on the whole, a drama but, within those confines, there are elements of action, moments which are thrilling and there's a touch of comedy here and there. as i have mentioned, the film does take a little while to find its feet, but once it gets going feng's mixtures of styles work well together and ensure that the pace travels as steadily as the film's location for the rest of the film. i'm not saying that this means that he's making a great film, but it certainly keeps things entertaining. personally, i think that the film has ideas above its station, in that it is presented in such a grandiose style, and i would have seen it as a grand failure, if i were to have watched it with high expectations. however, my expectations were for something which skated around being reasonable, at best, and found myself enjoying the ludicrous nature of it. take it too seriously and you may well be disappointed.

as for the cast of the film, in my opinion, ren lui is the main attraction, although ge you and lee bing-bing come close in their smaller roles. andy lau merely does a reasonable job here, he has been praised for a role that goes a little against type, but it shouldn't really have been much of a stretch for him to pull it off. one thing he should've pulled off, though, is a wig that should win a prize, for being so dreadful. rene lui, who i do like (particularly her turn in, the seemingly ignored ‘happy birthday’) and hope to see getting some good roles in the future, puts in a good performance next to the veteran lau even if she, also, isn't challenged too much. ge you, as you would expect, adapts well to his role and seems to have great fun as the, slightly campy, villain; uncle li. i would imagine that he also enjoyed working alongside lee bing-bing, for the majority of the film; lee is great as the sultry, cunning, student of uncle li. in fact, i take it back: rene lui is not the film's main attraction; lee bing-bing is. the low-point of the cast, unless you manage not to be annoyed by his performance and feel that he has perfectly encapsulated the persona of a ridiculously naive bumpkin, is wang baoqiang. still, the plot demands that he fulfils this role, so i can't just lay the blame at his feet...

so, in conclusion, what we have here is a film that seems to present itself as something bigger and better than it is, but still ends up being perfectly entertaining fare, despite having such pretensions. i think. for all i know, it may have been feng xiaogang's intention to create a film, which one sees, exactly like this. hang on, i'm off to watch the making of ‘a world without thieves’, back shortly...

...hmm, looks like was attempting something bigger and better. oh, well...

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 04/13/2008

The characters in “A World Without Thieves” are in constant motion on a journey across the limitless expanse of the plains, plateaus and mountains of Northwest China. Two of them, Wang Bo and Wang Li, are also on a spiritual and psychological odyssey in which they face profound and enduring changes. The Buddhist imagery which occurs throughout the movie underlines its theme of change, of the creative destruction of the inevitable progression of birth, development, decay and death. Wang Bo and Wang Li are on a literal journey—a very long train ride—that they share with Dumbo, a transcendently innocent peasant returning from six years of repairing monasteries in the West, a crew of professional thieves led by master criminal Uncle Li and groups of plainclothes and uniformed police officers who both keep order on the train and track the movements of criminals they have under surveillance. Dumbo is simple and straightforward—he has saved 60,000 Yuan while working with an itinerant team of carpenters from his home province and is returning with his savings to get married and buy a plot of land. The cops are similarly direct and uncomplicated—keep the peace and arrest outlaws.

The lives and destinies of Wang Bo and Wang Li are much more complicated. Their interaction with each other and with Dumbo drives the narrative and provides the basis for most of the action. They have a lucrative racket, stealing luxury cars in the east and taking them a long way—a really long way—into the countryside to sell. We first encounter them driving across a featureless landscape on a road that is the only indication that civilization has progressed this far. They cross a river on a raft-like ferry and head into the foothills of a looming mountain range—the viewer gets the impression they have traveled thousands of miles on this trip and have done it quite often. But this is different from other trips. Wang Li says it will be her last, that it is time to retire from the car theft business, even from a life of crime altogether, and to settle somewhere. One gets the impression it could be almost anywhere but she is finished with the road. Wang Bo treats this as just another whim—he might have to humor her for a while, to put up with her moodiness, but is confident that she will soon return to her normal self. One of the early hints we have that this won’t happen is that we first see Wang Li as a desperately unhappy woman who can’t stand another minute of her current life and simply must change it. Wang Bo, on the other hand, is the confident, convivial thief interested only in getting paid for this deal and getting started on a new one. Wang Li is focusing on her next life; while Wang Bo concentrates on the next payday. Their situation comes to its first climax when Wang Li insists she can’t spend another minute with him and gets out of the car on a desolate road in a red clay wasteland. Definitely a city girl, she is soon disoriented, hungry and thirsty and in real danger of not making it to the next town.

The monastery repair crew comes across her and Dumbo stops to share his canteen and give her a ride on his bicycle. She is struck by his simple, almost holy, attitude. They are fated, of course, to meet again—which they do when Dumbo cashes out after working for six years. He is going home to begin his real life. His lack of sophistication is shown when he has to ask the foreman how long he has been working with them—he doesn’t even know how old he is or even his own proper name. Wang Bo, having disposed of the car, runs into Wang Li at the train station. Dumbo is also there, escorted by his friends. Also waiting for the train is Uncle Li and three others. Uncle Li is an experienced and dangerous criminal leader, a master of disguise and deception who is also capable of shocking violence. He is attended by three accomplices—two thuggish hoodlums and a beautiful young woman—and is disguised as a decrepit godfather type. Dumbo, in one of the many incongruous (at least to this Western viewer) scenes in the film, asks at the top of his lungs if there are any thieves waiting for the train showing not only that he is carrying a sum of money but that he is a rural simpleton.

Much of the several day train trip is taken up by Wang Bo trying to steal Dumbo’s money while keeping Uncle Li’s gang from doing so and Wang Li, who thinks that Dumbo is the closest being she has ever encountered to a Boddhivista, someone who has achieved enlightenment but has chosen not ascend so that they might help others towards the goal, and who wants to keep him safe from everyone. The encounters among the competing thieves while they try to keep their activity from the notice of the ever present railroad police, is sometimes violent, sometimes funny and often quite surprising. There are double and triple crosses, especially within the group who follow Uncle Li—not all is well within his criminal empire and some members of the gang are restless. Possibly because “A World Without Thieves” is a mainland film, all the civil servants—train crew, police, army—are efficient, honest and polite.

One of the main themes and one mentioned often by Wang Bo, is the immutability of human nature. Wang Bo argues that he, Wang Li and the other criminals are set in their lives and nothing "not 10,000 good deeds" can change that. This is also a convenient justification for stealing from Dumbo--Wang Bo can't help it and Dumbo needs to be taught a lesson because he is too trusting. The scene on the train platform between Andy Lau and Rene Liu, a tense argument between them that ends when he shocks her, himself and the audience by hitting her. It is here were Wang Li tells him that she is going to change things because she is pregnant and doesn’t want to pass on bad karma to Wang Bo’s unborn child.

Director Feng Xiaogang gets terrific performances from his actors, a very talented bunch to begin with. Andy Lau is quite unglamorous—his Wang Bo is a small time crook with no future and a not very intriguing present, someone just trying to get by. He even looks a bit like a dolt with a bowl haircut and nondescript clothing. Rene Liu as Wang Li, the character we have most invested in, gives a bravura performance, ringing the changes from despair to fear to anger to joy. Ge You is his usual competent self, his distinctive voice and unruffled manner perfect for this role.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Not only are there striking images of the most photogenic landscape in the remote areas of China in which it was shot but the four (!) credited cinematographers use a lot of slanting light, giving a chiaroscuro effect on many of the indoor shots. The imagery, at least if the subtitles are correct, is repeated until even the dullest viewer will understand it—for example Wang Bo several times refers to himself and the other criminals as wolves while Dumbo’s only companions when the workers went home for New Year’s were an actual pact of wolves, a friendship he cherishes.

A good movie and well worth seeing

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: JohnR
Date: 08/12/2006

A thief suddenly finds herself wanting to leave the profession, for reasons of the soul, but her partner and lover doesn't want to and tries to convince her to change her mind. They find themselves protecting a country bumpkin carrying a wad of cash (and yes, this character is very annoying) from a gang of professional thieves, all riding the same train. Or is her partner actually after the cash, too?

The plot twists out like slowly spiraling braids of smoke, circling around and upon itself. We're never sure exactly who's up to what, who's loyal to whom, who is what they appear to be, and what the actual target is. It very much kept my interest, though once they boarded the train it began to feel a little claustrophobic.

The ending does have the appearance of being enforced by Chinese Communist moralists, but I think it's it line with the Buddhist karma theme that runs through the film. Still, I think a HK director would have found a better way. (But don't let that scare you away from seeing the movie, it's a minor point.)

Andy Lau is very good. I wasn't familiar with Rene Liu, but really liked her performance. Ge You played Uncle Li perfectly and Lee Bing Bing made a strong impression, too.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 04/02/2006
Summary: I found it boring actually.........

Firstly i have to agree with Mrblue about the "dumbo" character, i really couldn't stand him!! If the script wanted him to be that way (almost mentally retarded!!),the actor has done a good job but i just found the character unrealistic and i think thats what annoyed me most of the movie.

What i did like about the movie was the different themes it explored, can bad people change there spots? Who can you trust when your a thief yourself? The few plot twists are approriately timed.

I found the action (what little of it) lacklaster, nothing exicting.
I also found myself pressing the fast forward button often, i was not entertained!! I was bored!! The movie wasn't slow paced but the only character i was interested in was Rene Liu. I think that was the 2nd main issue for me,not being interested in the other characters, the first being Dumbo's character of course. If you see the movie, yo cna see why!!

Despite the other reviewers below me, i will have to disagree with them this time, it did not entertain me

Reviewer Score: 4

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 01/08/2006

Solid film - a nice story with a pertinent message, great acting and some very stylish cinematography (especially during the choreographed theft scenes). And yes, Li BingBing is totally hot!

Wasn't too keen on the ending of the film though... but being a Mainland film, I guess they were somewhat constrained.


Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: evirei
Date: 07/25/2005

For more than 10 years, we have seen Andy Lau in the movie industry and as a fan of his, I would say this is his strongest performance I have ever seen.

His role in this movie as a thief and partner to Rene is a perfect fit. I am glad of how he doesn't take up roles that make him look good, charming and being a good person (which he used to do in his younger days). His act as a professional pick pocket was simply amazing.

Rene taking up the role of andy's partner and lover is strong and cool. However she is just not outstanding enough to catch attention.

The storyline is simple, Andy and Rene trying to protect this naive boy (who thinks that there are not thieves in this world) from other thieves. The story was just so simple and easy to understand, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Many directors these days have too much to say when there is too little time.

The scene when Andy is face to face with Ge You peeling the egg scene totally blast me off.

Superb story... superb actors. I could hardly see any flaws in it except for the ending.

Rating 9 out of 10

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: bkasten
Date: 07/18/2005

It's difficult to believe how many things this movie wants to be (art, surrealism, action, drama, suspense, romance, comedy) and how many of them it successfully manages to be. This movie is close to absolute greatness, but falls only slightly short because of a somewhat weak ending.

Andy Lau and mainlander Rene Liu play high-end thieves (and lovers), and face off against another, larger, and similarly talented bunch of thieves on a long haul train. Both groups are targeting a naive young villager carrying a large amount of cash. Think of two packs of wolves vying for the same flock of sheep...and indeed similar imagery is used in the film.

The creative ways in which these two face off, the intensity, the tension, the uncertainly, make for an absolute roller coaster ride right up to the very end of the movie. And right up to the very end the plot twists so many times that literally anything could happen.

The cocksure and stylized performance by Andy Lau is almost tailor made for him. He's perfect for this role. And while the performance by Rene Liu is solid, although not outstanding, Ge You and most especially Lee Bing Bing's performances are terrific.

One fewer twists in the plot near the films climax, and a slightly better ending would rank this among the top suspense films this reviewer has ever seen. Nonetheless this is a superlative film.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 03/05/2005

In A World Without Thieves, Andy Lau and Rene Liu play a pair of hustlers named Wang Bo and Wang Li. After completing a job, Wang Li starts to become disheartened at her choice in life, and decides to quit the business. Wang Bo reluctantly agrees at first, but decides to stay with Li to try and change her mind. As they are boarding a train, Li meets up with Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang), a country bumpkin who is taking his life's savings home to his village. Li wants to do a good deed to try and restore some karma, so she decides to keep Dumbo's money safe from the other thieves on the train, most notably a gang of talented crooks led by Uncle Li (portrayed by Mainland superstar Ge Bao), which includes a mysterious woman named Leaf (played by the gorgeous Lee Bing-Bing) who seems intent on stealing both Dumbo's money and Wang Bo's allegiance to his lover.

In some ways, I think that A World Without Thieves is the movie that Jingle Ma's 2000 disaster Tokyo Raiders (one of the worst Hong Kong movies ever made in my opinion) really wanted to be. It's a sharp heist picture where things are never dumbed down too much, nor made unnecessarily complicated. A World Without Thieves also has style to burn, but never goes overboard with the "MTV style". Mainland helmer Feng Xiao Gang seems to be one of decreasing number of directors who knows when to set aside the visual trickery. What makes A World Without Thieves such a solid picture is that Feng lets his actors do the work, unlike stuff like Tokyo Raiders, which ends up becoming so bogged down in looking cool that the end results feel more like a ninety-minute music video instead of an actual movie.

However, there is one major roadblock which prevents A World Without Thieves from being a great film instead of just a good one, and its' name is Dumbo. I don't know if it's the way the character is written or Wang Baoqiang's performance -- probably a combonation of both -- but I found Dumbo to be totally unbeliveable and, at times, downright annoying. I seriously cannot fathom that, in this day and age, anyone (even if they are from a remote portion of China) could possibly believe that there is no such thing as a thief, to the point where they scream that they're carrying lots of money. There were times where I wanted one of the other passengers on the train to shoot Dumbo or at least taze him, so he could just be put out of his misery. Despite this, I would still recommend A World Without Thieves for fans of heist/con movies, and fans of Andy Lau's as well, since this is some of his strongest work over the past few years.

[review from www.hkfilm.net]