A World Without Thieves is a crime caper, a personal drama, a morality play, and a travelogue all rolled into one. Pretty impressive stuff, and a lot to pack into a bit less than 2 hours. The fact that it worked so well is a testament to the skills of cast and crew, and the fine script that managed to weave these disparate threads into whole cloth.
Mind you, the fact that the director is Feng Xiao Gang has a lot to do with it: he’s the man responsible for Big Shot’s Funeral, the black comedy about death and advertising (and I’m still not sure which is worse). He’s quite capable of putting together a nicely-tailored production, especially when he’s got some heavyweight acting talents at his beck and call. I know I’m expected to wax lyrical about Andy Lau, and it’s true that his acting continues to improve, and that his performance in this was strong. What you may not expect is that I have to say that Andy was overshadowed by Ge You, as Uncle Li, leader of a gang of pickpockets and con artists.
If you’ve seen many mainland Chinese films over the last few years, you may well have seen Ge You. He played a lead role in Big Shot’s Funeral, as well as essaying the reptilian Master Yuan in Chen Kaige’s masterpiece Farewell, My Concubine. And of course he won the coveted Best Actor award at Cannes in 1994 for his performance in Zhang Yimou’s drama To Live, so we know he’s got the acting goods. And his performance here was impeccable: quietly compelling, always in control, and endowed with such a depth and subtlety that aspiring actors should weep and give up, knowing they’ll never be that good.
Rene Liu rounds out a fine main cast, and all the supporting actors generally carry their characters convincingly. Generally. The one problem I had was with the bumpkin heading home with a wad of cash. Yes, he’s supposed to be naive and innocent, but I felt that, like the character in the play within a play in Hamlet, the bumpkin did protest too much. Having not read the book on which the film is based, I can’t comment on the nature of the original character, but somewhere between script and actor Dumbo loses credibility. A pity, because otherwise the characterisations are pretty damn fine.
Just a word about other aspects: because the action takes place on board a train or in remote northern China, we’re treated to the sweeping vistas and gorgeous scenery characteristic of many mainland Chinese films. You might just want to look at it, because it’s pretty enough. And the story moves not at the frantic pace of Hong Kong films, but at a more langorous pace suitable to a more subtle story, with the emotions of the characters being made plain over time. I liked this emotional development, as there’s not many film-makers willing to spend the time on characters when they could be blowing stuff up.
In terms of production values, it rates high. The warm colours and unobtrusive camera work complement the story, and there’s only one jarring continuity fault later in the film. And the lighting is marvellous: some scenes have a dreamy, timeless feel, with a shaft of sunlight slowing our perception down to the speed of the idly floating dust motes.
Overall, a thoughtful and well-executed film with some great performances.