A World Without Thieves

Reviewed by Lee Alon

Few can foretell what wonders lie in cinema. First, martial arts antics meet footie shenanigans just in time for World Cup 2002, and now, courtesy of large capital investments and over-zealous production assistants, wuxia comes together with the absconding realm of wily pickpockets, perhaps to coincide with Beijing's 2008 Olympics; so blissfully, oblivious tourists beware. At any rate, A World without Thieves enjoys a continuing barrage of compliments and hyperboles from various industry sources; especially those in the mainland who stand to gain something from its success. Does it warrant so much affection? In one fell swoop: no. Likely its main draw, and instigator of praise, must be the quite staggeringly polished look bestowed on each and every scene. Computer enhanced to the Nth degree, Thieves tries to do an extensive Hero cum Shaolin Soccer mind-job on audiences, resulting in much the same bombastic listlessness so afflicting the former, while devoid of the instant humorous charm boosting the latter's appeal.

With Thieves we also come across a hodge-podge of emotional takes, shifting quite awkwardly from heartfelt drama to philosophical humor and vice versa to frankly disastrous consequences. Many films are able to manage a seamless segue between these elements, but Thieves fails due to being too eager and irritatingly self-absorbed. When will these producers learn that making movies and becoming Miss Universe use entirely different sets of values and mores? All the faux-poetic fight scenes and semi-clever dialogue can't possibly salvage a film accursed by pretentiousness and mundane storytelling.
Going forward, Thieves' assumes two ultra-adept (yet somehow magically benign) criminals on their way cross-country in an extorted BMW. Mind you, not even a new one you'd normally bother risking your neck for, but still, a Beemer. The guy, Wang Bo (Andy Lau), relishes every minute, enjoying the outlaw life to the hilt. However, his female accomplice Wang Li (Rene Liu, recently spotted in “20-30-40”), having experienced some of the more profound slights of hand life can deal begins searching for reasons to go legit. As they traverse a conspicuously edited and filtered-to-please version of mainland China's landscape, our couple find themselves at odds over how to proceed.
Several clashes later, they arrive at an unnamed temple, where Wang Li prays for atonement while Wang Bo helps himself to the congregation's personal belongings. This scene first introduces the movie's martial arts-augmented pickpocketing routines, as we watch Wang Bo pull off all manner of swift moves and maneuvers in slow-mo, making him appear like the Crouching Tiger of petty criminals. Sadly, what could have been left alone to savvy minimalism becomes mistaken for a selling point, eventually encumbering Thieves with discordant excess baggage. More of these scenes follow later, but come with similarly annoying sentiments in tow.
After ditching their wheels, the two board a train bound for Beijing (we presume), on which they become close with Wang Li's newfound countryside friend, Xiao Gen (Wang Baoqiang). This young villager, heading to his ancestral Hebei hometown with 60K Yuan in cash as dowery, symbolizes the epitome of sweet innocence, contributing little to the proceedings save for highlighting our heroes' born-again kindness. He mostly either goes around making naïve remarks on how there's no malice in people, hence A World without Thieves, or falls indolently asleep.
When Wang Li and Wang Bo realize that a group of rival master thieves shares the train ride with them, they slowly get around to protecting Xiao Gen and his lifelong savings. Under the aegis of Uncle Li (Ge You, who we recall fondly from the excellent Cala, My Dog), the scheming posse aim to purloin Xiao Gen's cash not just for money's sake, but more to show their superiority over the two kleptomaniac love birds. Thus, a power struggle ensues, one told mostly through would-be insightful dialogue and the aforementioned misshapen action sequences.  Unfortunately, the usually respectable Ge You doesn't click this time round, and his sidekicks actually detract from the movie's potential by being downright unconvincing, particularly Li Bingbing (who plays a character called Leaf). Sorry if this sounds crass, but ladies who are cast as hotties but aren't, seldom carry over well on the big screen.
Despite Rene Liu's intelligently attractive countenance and Andy's usual top-notch professionalism, Thieves falls short. Its somewhat tragic resolution only manages to move viewers in that they at long last can get up and go look for something better to watch. Likewise, the few plot twists en route really don’t gather much momentum, with a red herring here and there sorely missed by all discerning pundits. Plus, as an aside from someone who's ridden a few of the mainland's railways, the movie's portrayal of Uncle Li's outrageously lavish quarters just seems too goofy to be real, as does the lounge party in the dining car. On-train debutante balls? What's next, ladies night for mid-week ticket buyers?
With any trace of true ambition or quality stolen, A World without Thieves comes along late in the 2004 fray as one of the year's most disappointing releases.

Rating: 4/10

Directed by Feng Xiaogang
Starring Andy Lau, Rene Liu, Ge You, Wang Baoqiang, Li Bingbing
2004, Putonghua, 120 minutes

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