A World Without Thieves (2004)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-04-13
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