Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).
A World Without Thieves (2004) Movie Review
Mainland filmmaker Feng Xiaogang directs A World Without Thieves (2004), a flashy, commercial sort of humorous moral drama which drags intermittently for the first half with only Wang Bo (the popular Hong Kong actor Andy Lau with a frightful wig in the first three-quarters of the film) and the randomly pious and ultimately useless Wang Li (Rene Liu) to decorate the screen with an implausible romantic relationship. Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang) serves the purpose of the stock naïve character who believes in the good of everyone, and irritates with his sheer ignorance of reality.
The film then picks up surprisingly well in the second part, when thief extraordinaire Uncle Li, played an excellently creepy Ge You of Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Banquet (2006) among numerous other productions, enters the picture with a group of skilled thieves with him: the sultry and incongruously named Leaf (Li Bing Bing), the simply identified Number Two (You Yong), and the even more obviously described Four-Eyes (Gordon Lam). In order to ironically contrast with the film’s title the train on which most of the action takes place is of course full of professional and amateur thieves as well as the smarter police monitoring the situation. Although as mentioned above I found the first half unforgivably tedious, slow, and mostly unnecessary except as a horrifically prolonged setup for the second part, later on the many sequences demonstrating the cleverness and manual dexterity of the thieves largely compensated.
The story opens with Wang Li teaching English to a middle-aged, paunchy man, who, it soon becomes apparent, is a lustful adulterer. He attempts to have sexual relations with Wang Li, but unfortunately for him, Wang Bo catches the entire shameful episode on camera. The two thieves proceed to threaten the man with exposure and extort his BMW from him. Soon after, the female partner of the duo discovers a religious streak and decides to quit the business. She meets Dumbo, a country boy who wants to return home with the 60,000 RMB he’s acquired over five years and get married. All three reunite on a train, Wang Bo having somewhat successfully re-established a relationship with Wang Li.
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After an admittedly mean incident in which Wang Bo deceives Dumbo into giving him 5,000 RMB by pretending that Wang Li needs money for medical care, the latter adopts Dumbo as her brother and sets out to protect him. Inevitably, as Wang Bo inexplicably loves her, Wang Bo will be drawn into acting as a guard for Dumbo as well. Uncle Li, impressed by Wang Bo’s amazing skills, and his entourage play various tricks to try to get Dumbo’s money: these failed heists are actually the highlight of the film. Little do the many thieves on the train know that the police are onto them. Ultimately, Wang Bo heroically and improbably loses his life to Uncle Li protecting Dumbo’s innocence as he gives Wang Li time to escape from the police with their unborn baby.
A World Without Thieves has no likable characters, a fact Director Xiaogang no doubt realized and so took care to garnish the film with amusing antics and a final melodramatic sacrifice. Dumbo, a standard plot device figure, has an unfortunate tendency to voice his few thoughts aloud, mainly incredulous opinions about how there are no thieves. One can empathize at least a little with Wang Bo wanting to teach him a lesson on the ways of the world. Wang Li has no particular personality and merely acts as the link between Wang Bo and Dumbo; since she evinces no skill that the audience can see, I find it difficult to believe that she and Wang Bo were such a successful team when the latter is clearly so much more accomplished in matters of thievery than she is.
Wang Bo is a horrid jerk at the beginning and eventually mellows into a good man, but the transformation is too drastic for me to absorb realistically. As for the villains, they are evil-minded and all of them barring Uncle Li are less competent than Wang Bo, which makes them, in addition to their other vices, look foolish and bumbling. To be fair, they are distinguishable from each other: Number Two’s resentment at Leaf usurping his position becomes outright mutiny, and Leaf to save her own skin turns Uncle Li in to the police, while Four-Eyes does nothing of note except follow orders and get arrested.
The dynamics between the four are interesting, much more so than that of the good guys, although the weirdly (non)sexual relationship between Leaf and Uncle Li does not invite further perusal for fear of thinking too much about it. The close-up shots of fight scenes can be abrupt and rather garish in the use of light/dark and slow-motion sleights-of-hand action. However, the scene in the dining room with Wang Bo and Uncle Li competing with each other by shelling eggs is a highly impressive one without obvious special effects.
As a romance, the film does not really convince me, but the action/thriller aspect works relatively well in contrast. A problematic aspect of the story is that Wang Bo’s ability level changes with every scene; sometimes he is invincible, and the next moment’s he’s dangling over the side of a train needing Uncle Li to help in hoisting him up. He’s apparently cleverer than Leaf, but honestly, she drugged herself. I do like the ironic twist of how the disguised police officers turned out to be more intelligent than all the criminals combined.
In fact, A World Without Thieves abounds in irony besides the obvious, a sound positive for the film. As for the main actors, Lau’s Wang Bo smirks his way through the film while Liu’s Wang Li looks concerned for Dumbo or annoyed with her lover. I suppose they did a competent job, but I cannot help but wonder if a more charismatic actress and a less overconfident actor would have performed better. The verdict: sit through an hour, and be rewarded for your understandable dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with fast-paced and unexpected entertainment in the second part, and find that perhaps a few tears are squeezed from your otherwise glazed eyes.