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A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

October 20, 2010 3 comments

There’s a delicious moment when I now start thinking about the old “coals to Newcastle” idiom. As a denizen of the named city, I tip my hat to the wiseacres who caught the irony of trade cycles. Indirectly, they were talking about me. I grew up surrounded by coal mines, with pit-head winding gear and spoil-heaps dotting the landscape, but never really thought about the product. I just accepted half my local community worked in the shipyards, and the other half emerged blackened and blinking into the light when the shifts ended. One of these days, I will go back, but it will be in sadness. The shipyards are mostly gone, redeveloped for housing. The pits have been closed for decades — Newcastle really does import its coal these days.

Back in the 1960s, I remember discovering Robert Van Gulik’s stories about Judge Dee. This was one of the early efforts at locating the traditional Golden Age detective story in a different era. In this case, he borrowed from an original Chinese source to locate an investigating magistrate in seventh century China. Based on the real-world character Di Renji, Van Gulik produced a series of stories, rather wooden by modern standards, in which our hero solves crimes and punishes the guilty.

Now we fast-forward to modern times with a film made in China by a Hong Kong director featuring the same “Detective” Dee. Set in about 690 AD, our hero is recalled to investigate two deaths which threaten to interfere with the imminent ascension to the Imperial throne of Wu Zetian. She has been acting as Regent and now assumes the right to become Empress. This completes the circle with a Chinese hero reclaimed from the West and now glorified in film by director Tsui Hark.

As a film about a famous detective, the script had better deliver a good mystery for him to solve. That’s why we pay the price of admission. On this criterion, I’m pleased to report the core puzzle is well constructed. Despite being overlaid with the obvious implausibility of supernatural and fantasy elements, the practicality of the who, the how and the why are elegantly conceived. As is always the case, the pool of suspects is whittled down, and we are soon left with only one real prospect for the villain, but there’s a coherence, if not always logic, to the investigation.

Deng Chao, Li Bingbing, Tsui Hark, Carina Lau and Andy Lau at the 67th Venice Film Festival

I also got what I wanted in Andy Lau’s portrayal of Detective Dee. He’s quietly determined and represents the best traditions of the analytical detective by thinking his way through to the solution of the problems. In this historical context, he’s a political realist and obsessional in his drive to arrive at what he considers the best outcome for the country. Naturally, when thinking fails, he can fight as well. In this, I forgive the supernatural power of his mace of office. Every martial arts expert must have a magic weapon of some kind, and this is understated while remaining highly effective. As to the rest of the primary players, Chao Deng is wonderful as the albino investigator, blending undoubted intelligence and some political guile with a genuinely creepy air of ruthlessness, being prepared to torture a key witness to the first death played by Tony Leung Ka Fai. Bingbing Li is nicely caught in the middle of the continuing conflict between Dee and the woman waiting to be Empress. While Carina Lau shows enough vulnerability as the aspirant Empress to be all-too-convincing. She is only doing what is necessary for the long-term prosperity of the Empire.

At its heart, this is a superb piece of film-making with the first forty-five minutes representing the highest possible standards in every respect. It’s a wonderful balance between a possible supernatural threat set in an environment that is a highly original metaphor for the Tang Empire. There’s a semi-rational explanation for the manner of the deaths — a form of internal combustion induced by phosphorus from an unlikely source — and we are used to the excesses of physical performance achievable by kung fu exponents. All this creates a rich texture for the story-telling. As a setting, the dominant statue of the Empress-to-be, rising in the forefront of the port and overlooking the palace, is a striking image. It’s a form of deification, recognising the transformation of a mere Regent into the Empress with absolute authority. The price paid by a woman fighting her way to the top of the political heap, has been many bodies. Everyone in the way is expendable. It’s therefore not surprising that, as the sun rises and sets, her shadow should fall across the capital city and the court where her political rivals plot her downfall.

But when we get into the second half of the film, the fantasy starts to get in the way. We have an unnecessary kung fu skill of disguise but, far more significantly, the fighting loses its focus when we go down into the Phantom Market and beyond.

Sammo Hung was responsible for the fight choreography which, in the early sequences is very good, as you would expect from an artist with vast experience on both sides of the camera. But it’s when we come to the extended wire work that things somewhat fall apart. There comes a point when people swinging from one side of a set to another becomes rather silly and, unfortunately, this point is reached in this film. In an attempt to cover up the strangeness of the emerging sequences, the scenes are cut togeher in an incoherent way. We are not allowed to watch an emerging battle of skillful martial artists. We simply see people vaguely interacting and possibly chasing each other, but the overall effect in the second half is immensely disappointing. In this, I put the blame squarely on Tsui Hark’s shoulders. What was spectacular in the innocent days of Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, has become overstylised and pretentious to modern audiences as the technical side of special effects and stunt work has developed. It’s clear many sequences are included simply because they can now be shot without looking too amateurish. This is hasty and overambitious. A creative mind wanting to push forward, but not prepared to wait for technology to catch up.

Although the end achieves a kind a steampunk magnificence and, to some extent, rescues the overegged fighting and chase sequences between Dee and the villain, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. The story is good. The cast are all excellent. What a shame the essential element of kung fu fails to deliver. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeing. Whatever its failings in the second half, the director’s intention and over-the-top style are engaging even though flawed. It’s not in his nature to be comfortable with greater realism in the fighting. A shame really. A little more conservatism would have transformed a merely good film into an excellent film.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

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